For years, I disdained television. My tastes were limited to The X Files and classic Nickelodeon cartoons like Rocko’s Modern Life or AHHH! Real Monsters. (A separate post is forthcoming about those cartoons specifically…)
I still have mixed feelings about television in general, partly because there is sooooo much bad television out there, and it seems that some of the best stuff (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies…basically anything by the creative mind of Bryan Fuller) has a very short life, while other terrible things (Two and a Half Men, anyone?) go on for years. Years. Where is the justice, people?
Of course, the world of theater isn’t much different. There is a lot of bad theater in Los Angeles. A lot. Everyone in the theater world has contributed to at least some of it. Some of that bad theater dies, while some of it goes on to win awards or have year long runs and fabulous reviews. But there is also a lot of good theater being done – some of it dies just like the bad stuff, some of it wins awards. You either find your audience or you don’t.
(Good and bad are relative terms of course…which I would hope you keep in mind while reading this list of mine.)
In any case, in the last several years I have happily found the world of good television; when you get the right creative minds together and get good writing on the page, or just have a hell of a lot of fun, you can create some surprising shows. Part of my exploration came from the realization that a lot of playwrights are being plucked up to write for television (mostly HBO), which can give us all high hopes. I sat in on a panel discussion about this at the TCG Conference in Los Angeles this past summer – HBO’s big advice to playwrights hoping to nab that big TV show writing deal? “Keep writing and PRODUCING your work. We’re watching.”
So I’m paying more attention to television, to say the least. Here are five shows I discovered in 2011 that have inspired me somehow:
1. Veronica Mars
Okay, I know this is old school, right? When it was actually on the air, I’m pretty sure I knew it existed…maybe…but I never watched it. But when my friend Rebecca Bonebrake left me all three seasons on DVD and even watched the first episode with me to make sure I got hooked, I finally jumped on the Veronica wagon.
It’s basically a noir-esque private detective show set in high school in what is basically San Diego. Veronica Mars is smart, resourceful, fearless, bitter and solves just as many mysteries as her father (who is the actual, you know, licensed private detective here).
What I learned: High school stories don’t have to be stupid. You can have a strong female character that still has flaws, can still be deeply wounded, and still kicks ass. Nothing is what it seems. The most well constructed mystery with well rounded characters can keep you guessing for over 20 episodes. The most low-down despicable characters can still turn around and make you fall in love with them. Kids in pristine beach towns have ISSUES, man. And if you don’t have the strong structure in place, a good mystery story will fall completely to shit in the third season – especially when the melodrama of a romantic relationship with at least one character that has slipped further into the 2D zone than he ever was before gets so damn dull it’s hard to breathe.
2. American Horror Story
This is a brand new show that just finished its first season. It’s really your basic haunted house story done REALLY well.
What I Learned: Horror, when done well, can not only scare the shit out of you, it can really speak to themes of human frailty, sexuality/sexual desire, love, revenge, and the darkest part of our souls that most of us never want to acknowledge is there. It shows me that even when an audience might have figured out the mystery, or at least the mystery at the moment (because this show keeps pulling up layer after layer of history here) you can still keep them riveted (sometimes because we’re hoping that what we think we figured out is just too horrible to be real). Also, pregnancy is scary.
Okay, don’t laugh. My little brother and I discovered this show (another that was on the air several years ago) when he was staying with me for a week this past summer. Basic story: Sam discovers that his parents sold his soul to the devil when he was young and now he is forced to cash in on the deal and work for the man in red – specifically he has to become a grim reaper (on top of working a boring job at a hardware store and generally dealing with all those annoying problems of an early 20-something).
What I Learned: It’s a ridiculous premise, yes, but when you embrace that and have fun with it, the most ridiculous premise can take you a long way. When dealing with the dark forces of human nature or the universe, it’s more interesting (and more realistic…yes, even in a show like this) to blur the lines between what you assume to be “good” and “evil” or “right” and “wrong”. The coming-of-age story never dies. The hero’s journey never dies. The show dealt with the coming-of-age thing pretty exclusively at first, but it got into deeper (and darker) ideas of what the darkness really is (which is actually part of the coming-of-age thing too). And it did all this in a generally fun, colorful, funny and quirky way – and so can you!
4. The Booth at the End
This is an exclusive web show produced and presented by Hulu. I’m hoping they’ll make more, but who knows. There is a mysterious man at a booth in a cafe. People approach him because they have heard he has a gift – for getting people what they want. But first, they must complete a task or a serious of tasks that he hands to them – tasks that they would normally find inconceivable. He never forces them to do anything – only offers them a choice.
What I Learned: A lot can be accomplished in complete simplicity (the whole thing is filmed in the diner…we never (or rarely) see any of the actions the people describe) when you ask the right questions, leave the right amount of questions unanswered, and have the right amount of suspense and story. You can show a lot about a character in a very short amount of time. When you find a story that people can relate to, asking themselves what they would do in that same situation, you have gold. Science fiction and philosophy can be done right.
5. Man Men
Yes, I’m also slow to jump on this train. I haven’t caught up yet with all the seasons, but I’ll get there. Basically it’s the story of Don Draper, an ad man of the 1960s and those he works/sleeps with. Mostly, the sex part.
What I Learned: The sixties sucked for women. Obviously. This entire show is about telling the right story in the right way – knowing how to spin whatever it is you’re trying to sell (whether it’s a product or yourself) into something people want, and keeping secret whatever it is you hate or are running away from. Creating mysterious characters with just enough asshole and just enough tenderness is tricky but essential. It’s good sometimes to have the audience swing between loving and hating the protagonist. Layers, people. It’s all about layers. Also, people smoked a lot back then. Also, pregnancy is scary.
Honorable Mention: Dr. Who
I did not discover Dr. Who in 2011, but there was a switch from the David Tennet era to Matt Smith – which basically means its a different show completely. (The switch might not have happened in 2011, but that’s when I saw it, people.) Still my favorite fairy tale/sci fi/myth on television.
What I Learned: Forbidden love will make you cry every time. Strong female characters! And David Tennet can do no wrong.