These days, I don’t have much free time for television or movies. But at night, when I’m winding down for the day, I do watch a little TV if my eyes are too tired to read (which they have been lately).
There are a few series I watch, but because it’s summer, most shows are repeats. I’ve started watching reruns of older shows. Particularly shows from the 1970s and 1980s.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so I find I like these shows as much for the nostalgic pleasure as the actual quality of the stories. I’m also learning some helpful tips about storytelling by watching them, particularly shows like The Incredible Hulk and Planet of the Apes (1970s) and The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team (1980s).
Okay, I’m the first to admit, the acting fell a little short of Emmy-worthy and the plots were predictable. But there were some really cool elements common to all of them.
- The Anti-Hero
The protagonists in all these series were not the paragon-of-society-type hero. They were more anti-heroes. Each of them was chased by the authorities in their respective shows. That’s not to say the authorities were beyond reproach and the protagonists walked that fine-line between righteousness and vengeance. In all cases, the authorities were either mistaken or straight-up the “bad guys” of the story. But it was the darker nature of these heroes that made them so compelling.
- The Plot
One of the things that struck me about these shows is that each protagonist put his freedom and safety on the line to help others. Moreover, these aren’t family or friends the protagonist is helping—they are strangers. That’s what, to me, elevates those stories. The high stakes and the increasing conflict.
- The Moral
These days, morals sometimes take a backseat to special effects or action sequences. Not that there’s anything wrong with cool makeup or big explosions. (I enjoy a good sci-fi or action thriller as much as anyone.) In those aforementioned shows, though, the morals took front and center. It wasn’t just that the protagonists solved problems for the guest of the week. They shone a light on racism, sexual harassment, corporate or government corruption, etc. While the quality of the shows themselves is dated, the messages are actually refreshing.
These days, the trend is toward reality TV, which I don’t watch and don’t find remotely realistic. The few contemporary fictional shows I watch focus more on witty banter (which I love) or shock-value crimes (which are quite enjoyable in their own right). I know many of these programs have moral messages, but it’s so easy to lose them in the creative and artistic expressions that rise to the surface.
Okay, you’ve given me enough latitude. What’s the point of all this? Other than to show how old I am and my strange affinity for old television shows?
It’s 2017. Maybe I’m still living in the 70s and 80s, but I think I learned a lot from that era and the stories of that time.
I’m not suggesting all protagonists need to be anti-heroes. You may think Batman is more interesting than Superman (and I refuse to weigh in on this one), but each has his merits. What they both have in common is that they’re bigger than life. So, while we shouldn’t write parodies or excessively-exaggerated protagonists, we do need to craft memorable ones. Give them quirks, complicated backstories, problems to resolve. Consider issues that aren’t fully addressed in one novel (television episode), but rather take a series (television season or series) to work through. This will help you create compelling characters with long arcs that can be sustained throughout a saga.
Yes, today’s plots are more intricate and complex than they were a few decades ago. But there was a purity in the simplicity of those shows. These were straight-up David versus Goliath shows—a person or small team against a large, powerful adversary. What made the plots stand the test of time (well, my test, anyway) is what these characters risked and what they had to overcome. When we write a story, we should always be asking what would add drama, what would make things more dire? Is it enough to pit man against man? Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if we pitted brother against brother? What about brother against injured brother? How about brother against injured brother lost in the wilderness? We haven’t strayed into an unbelievable realm, but we have upped the stakes, upped the conflict. And any way we can increase tension is going to add to the strength of the story.
There’s a popular theory that literary fiction stands strong because it has a theme, whereas genre fiction sells out with its “lowbrow” tropes. I don’t agree with that statement. I think genre fiction has themes, too—if the reader looks for more meaning in the story than just the happily-ever-after or the whodunit. The theme may be as simple as love conquers all or crime doesn’t pay, but if we, as writers, keep a theme in mind as we write, I think we can see a poignant message emerge which will strengthen our work. Even genre work.
I don’t know if you’re as big a fan of classic television as I am, but I hope you can see that the shows do have merit and are relevant to writers even today. Maybe I’m just nostalgic (I am) or am a hopeless romantic (also true) or am just tired of a lot of today’s “reality” garbage (that’s a resounding yes). But it’s nice to see a crime get solved by a person’s wits and courage rather than with computer tech and a block of C-4.
What about you? Are you a classic TV fan or do you just think it’s cheesy? Do you see the merits in that kind of storytelling or are you only interested in contemporary tales? I’d love to know what you think. Leave a note in the comments, and let’s talk about it.