10 TV Shows That Writers Really Love

By Angelita Williams

No matter what medium a writer works with, he or she must absorb as many novels, articles, short stories, long nonfiction, poems, comics, songs, plays, films and television programs as possible in order to learn the numerous ways in which people communicate. Anything involving the written or spoken word provides lessons on what to do and what not to do when telling a story or conveying a thesis statement. Even though television today supposedly swarms with some of the most ridiculous, self-absorbed personalities and mind-numbing cliches, the history of the medium (up to and including the current era) still includes some sterling examples of excellent writing. These creative standouts provide viewers of a literary bent with some of the tools needed to tighten their craft and build ideas to their fullest potential. Consider them and dissect the strategies utilized to solidly construct a successful narrative, and even make note of their mistakes, too, as nothing comes without flaws.

When reading, please keep the MST3K mantra in mind. Itself an excellent program, the show’s theme song points out that any listing of subjective material should never angry up the blood. Plenty of excellent television shows with amazing writing exist out there. Tastes differ from writer to writer, and nobody expects every reader to agree with every show presented here. This article merely points out ten of them and does not intend to discount the talents and contributions of others. Starving kids in Africa are serious business, not pop culture ramblings on the internet. So please put down those pitchforks and torches over such admittedly blasphemous omissions as The Simpsons, Firefly, (almost) anything with Muppets and The Colbert Report. Channel the raging fury into something productive instead, then come back and read with a clear head and a slowed heart.

  1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus : One of the major reasons why audiences love the men behind Monty Python is its razor-sharp wit. Wordplay, non sequitur, grammar humor, literary and mythological humor and other devices that delight writers — and, of course, anyone else who considers her- or himself as a devotee of all things Pythonesque — comprise the core of this iconic comedy troop. The quintessential sketch comedy, Flying Circus reveled in gleeful, surrealist absurdity tempered with the experiences and pedigreed educations of some highly creative intellectuals. Beyond the 45 episodes of the TV series, Pythons Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin also produced 6 films, multiple specials, a slew of live performances, 16 albums, a Broadway musical (Spamalot, based loosely on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail), 6 books and 7 games. Monty Python’s shameless skewering of British society heavily influenced later generations of writers, comedians, filmmakers, actors, musicians and artists and remains an essential facet of an increasingly horrifying pop culture landscape. Without such painstaking control over seemingly anarchic material, characters and situations, these writers and performers likely would have floundered about in obscurity before fizzing away as just another entertainment casualty.

  2. Mad Men : So many critics and fans unfortunately end up so caught up in Mad Men‘s stunning cinematography and smart, sleek retro style they forget the exceptional craft behind the writing. AMC’s instantly classic drama has snagged multiple Emmy Awards for the people both in front of and behind the camera. In a television climate brimming over with orange-tinted, entitled youths with too much money and too few brain cells, the masterful use of subtlety makes for an extremely refreshing change of pace. Everyone orbiting tormented protagonist Don Draper’s life is equally defined by their inactions as their actions, and the writing never talks down to its audience by explaining every plot and character point in detail. The first few seasons highlighted the insular corporate world buzzing with WASPs apathetic to the surrounding social climate. Lately, however, issues regarding Civil Rights (and whispers of the later feminist movement) have started creeping into the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with slow, steady precision rather than crashing blatancy. Writers yearning to learn all they can about crafting memorable, multifaceted characters, inference and subtlety and how to infuse topical issues into a story so it seems organic rather than forced would do well to look towards the sublime Mad Men for inspiration.

  3. The Venture Bros.: When it comes to writing for television, The Venture Bros. oftentimes go painfully overlooked as one of the best shows currently on air as of 2010. Although it certainly caters to a niche demographic of nostalgia buffs who love cartoons, comic books, glam rock and pulpy adventures, this show makes for an excellent study for ANY writer curious about the tenets of deconstruction. Creators Jackson Publick (pseudonym of Chris McCullough) and Doc Hammer (Eric Hammer) lovingly slice apart the beloved tropes associated with the action and science fiction genres, breaking them down and building them back up into something both comfortably familiar and refreshingly unique. Along the way, they populate their eclectic universe of ghost robots, spy organizations, super science and superheroes with a clever, detailed cast of colorful characters and a dedication to forging a tight, detailed mythology. Viewers unfamiliar with many of the old cliches Publick and Hammer examine may not appreciate their postmodernist sensibilities as much as the ones that do, however. But any writer considering work in the action, science fiction or fantasy genres should give it a watch before crafting brand new worlds of their own. The creators’ staggering attention to detail and internal consistency stands as a sterling example for writers of speculative fiction — regardless of medium.

  4. The Wire: Police and crime procedurals have become a staple of American television to the point of exhausting cliche. But HBO’s sublime series set itself apart from the blue sea of ho-hum, interchangeable programs with richly textured characters (many based on real people), deep sociopolitical commentary and willingness to step beyond its crime drama roots to focus on other narratives. Here, the city of Baltimore exists as just as much of a character as the peoples inhabiting it, and each season dissects the societal ills and issues that impact a different corner of the overarching community. Although the entire show proffers some incredible general lessons for writers when it comes to forming believable characters and compelling plots, one of its greatest strengths lay in the use of theme. While The Wire focuses its lens on the myriad plights of Baltimore’s drug problem, education system, docks and more, these reflect back on America as a whole and peel back even further to reveal the universal emotions of feeling claustrophobic and squashed within an institution beneath it all. Real people with experiences similar to those found in the script peppered the cast as opposed to exclusively actors for added poignancy, blurring the lines between the known world and the ones people create for entertainment.

  5. Lost: The series finale of ABC’s hit drama Lost polarized its passionate fandom even further than usual, a testament to its writers’ devotion to piecing together a vast, ever-shifting and immersive world for its viewers. Were it not for the twisting narrative wrought with cliffhangers and mysteries large and small, such frenzied debates never would have popped up in the first place. Though uneven at times, fans repeatedly came back to the magic, unnamed island and its strange and wonderful inhabitants (some voluntary, some decidedly not) to see which crazy direction the story would take next. Little by little, piece by piece, plots and characters and concepts began to grow and eventually grow together to form one massive, overarching tale of interconnectivity and the question of freedom versus predestination. In spite of its science-fiction and fantasy trappings, Lost — most especially the first season — is essential viewing for writers needing pointers on how to keep their audiences eagerly thirsting for more. Structurally, too, it makes for one of the more accessible examples of a competently-executed nonlinear narrative in mainstream media. Telling a tale outside the traditional forward-moving chronology is a notoriously difficult undertaking — while no definitive "right" way exists, the strategy grows ineffective if even one small facet cracks.

  6. Masterpiece: Formerly Masterpiece Theatre, this showcase of some of the world’s greatest creative voices has been airing new programming since 1971, making it one of the longest-running shows on television. Though most people know it as a show featuring live-action adaptations of literary classics, in reality it covers everything from biographies to genre fare to original productions. Nowadays, Masterpiece‘s structure rotates through what seems a bit like four shows in one. Masterpiece Classic sits snugly in winter and spring time slots, followed by Masterpiece Mystery! in the summer and Masterpiece Contemporary in the fall. Because their offerings shift yearly, writers can find numerous benefits nestled throughout the featured narratives. Supplementary interviews and other materials on the website and show provide peeks into the creative processes of some of today’s most notable storytellers. Not to mention the excellent insight provided into what made certain books enduring entries into the literary canon!

  7. Extras: The brilliant Ricky Gervais’ pitch-black comedy wrings some painful humor out of the all-too-relatable quest to create compelling stories that find an appreciative audience. Most of the characters possess brittle, unsympathetic and wholly hilarious qualities, but even at their very worst any writer who has ever ended up mired in a flood of editorial mandates and unwanted changes can find a kindred spirit in protagonist Andy Millman. Strip away the laughs and the self-deprecating celebrity cameos and the delightfully discomforting faux pas and at its core lay a story of exasperation at how the blood, sweat and tears that goes into writing — in the case of Extras, a TV pilot script — may very well go ignored and altered beyond recognition for the sake of commercial viability. This quintessential showbiz satire far features more than just examples of crackling dialogue and cringe-worthy plots that writers should certainly study. It is a viable testament to the very real struggles that creative types must face when trying to be taken seriously at their craft. How they must sometimes neuter the potency of their narratives in order to obtain even the most nominal degree of success. Publishing and filmmaking share the same dehumanizing elements intending to make a once lovingly-crafted work pull in as much money as possible using broad strokes and banalities. Ricky Gervais understands all too well, and one of his most essential television programs bottles up their collective exasperation and frustration to give them some fragment of therapy.


  8. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast: Cartoon Network took a massive gamble when its first bit of original programming mashed up old, pulpy superhero cartoons with live-action celebrity interviews. As the success of its [adult swim] block can attest, the bold experiment proved a rousing and unexpected success. Featuring animation recycled from a once-beloved Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the iconic Space Ghost hosted a talk show with interviews of figures obscure (entomologist Maxcy Nolan), cult (Adam West, Joel Hodgson) and mainstream (Jim Carrey, Emeril Lagasse). In a delightful inversion of the typical format, guests were met with heckling and harassment rather than the expected ego-stroking — if not outright ignored! The dada-inspired insanity taking place beyond the monitor playing live footage almost always held far more fascination than the interviews themselves. One memorable episode with fellow talk show host Conan O’Brien (himself a talented, notable writer) chronicled Space Ghost’s fascination with a fire ant for 11 minutes out of a 15 minute time span. Another ended on a cliffhanger, and the staff members autographed the script and sold the ending on eBay for charity. It may seem like an incredibly strange entry when something more immediately recognizable like The Simpsons could have taken this spot, but SGC2C‘s unapologetic experimentation and successful genre blending make a far more compelling argument when it comes to one very important element of writing. No matter how insane an idea may seem at first, with creativity, dedication and care it may very well end up something special and memorable. Never throw out concepts. Just because they fit poorly with one piece does not mean they cannot find a home in another. And never, ever give in to the fear of trying something new.

  9. Star Trek: As its legions of fans enjoy pointing out, the original installment of the Star Trek franchise could have easily slipped into the realm of forgettable camp were it not for the strong efforts of the writing team. With a strong central cast of characters recognizable even by non-fans, the U.S.S. Enterprise traversed the universe and encountered a slew of imaginative beings. Many of the dangers they faced paralleled the sociopolitical climate of the 1960s, grounding what on the surface seemed a purely science-fiction tale firmly in the realm of the terrestrial. William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura even shared one of the very first interracial kisses on television — an edgy move that established the show as something culturally significant that ought not go ignored. But in spite of its fearless commentary, the writers behind Star Trek never forgot the importance of tempering serious material with humor. By keeping the tone light without ever losing sight of the importance of action, narrative, character and commentary, the show won its infamously cultish following. When it comes to creating worlds of their own and keeping audiences both enthralled and aware of the day’s major issues, writers certainly need to seek out this series for advice.

  10. Stella: In spite of lasting only ten episodes, attentive writers can still dredge up some nice little lessons from The State alumni Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain’s curious little undertaking. Its overarching tone differs from the works of Monty Python in structure only — though veterans of sketch comedy, the Stella troupe stuck with a full narrative arc for this series. Save for the pilot, every episode clings to the cliches of a different genre and ruthlessly parodies them with amazing care and skill. References to movies, music and (of course) literature abound, related with the same breakneck pacing and irreverent, anarchic joy as their British predecessors. Stella competently bridges the gap between lowbrow humor and highbrow intellectualism, playing in the sandbox of absurdity and deconstruction. Writers needing to find similar balances in their own works should carefully study the myriad literary treasures lurking below this sadly overlooked gem.


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