Merit in Older Works

REMAKECiao, SEers. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of movies are being remade and television shows are being brought back after years of being off the air. It made me wonder if these reboots are because the adage is true: every story has already been told.

Flip through the channels at night and you’ll find DIY shows, reality TV, educational programming, news, sports, melodrama, action, and sitcoms. And most of these are not well done. I have hundreds of stations, yet little appeals to me. You’d think there would be a better selection, but there’s not. As such, when I’m too eye-weary to read, I often find myself watching reruns of old shows now in syndication. Which made me think about another adage: oldie but goodie.

Do I like these shows because of nostalgia, or are they actually better?

I’m not going to answer that question. I don’t know if I can answer it, but I feel like I shouldn’t even if I can.

Instead, I want to discuss a few ways fiction has changed over the years by analyzing an old(er) television show, then go over the things we can learn by studying it.

(I know there’s a difference between screenwriting and novel writing, but for the purposes of this discussion, the differences won’t matter.)

Changes Over the Years

Barney Miller Cast 1077I’ve recently been watching Barney Miller at night. It aired on ABC from January 23, 1975, to May 20, 1982. (Yes, I referred to it as older even though it premiered more than forty years ago. Forty isn’t that long.) I enjoy the banter, which is why I’m awake at midnight to watch two episodes. But after doing a little research, this is what really strikes me:

In a 2005 op-ed for the New York Times, real-life New York police detective Lucas Miller wrote:

Real cops are not usually fans of cop shows. […] Many police officers maintain that the most realistic police show in the history of television was the sitcom Barney Miller, […] The action was mostly off screen, the squad room the only set, and the guys were a motley bunch of character actors who were in no danger of being picked for the N.Y.P.D. pin-up calendar. But they worked hard, made jokes, got hurt and answered to their straight-man commander. For real detectives, most of the action does happen off screen, and we spend a lot of time back in the squad room writing reports about it. Like Barney Miller’s squad, we crack jokes at one another, at the cases that come in, and at the crazy suspect locked in the holding cell six feet from the new guy’s desk. Life really is more like Barney Miller than NYPD Blue, but our jokes aren’t nearly as funny.

I am impressed that the squad room is (almost) the only set. There are early episodes where we visit Barney’s apartment, and a few where we go to Fish’s home. I remember one at Chano’s place after he shot someone, another at Wojo’s when he was considering living with a former prostitute. There was also a hospital scene when a new detective was shot, a jail scene when Barney was held for contempt, an offsite witness protection scene with Harris and Dietrich, and an empty apartment scene when the guys were on a stakeout. That’s really not a lot of alternative settings for eight seasons, particularly when you consider these other sets weren’t used often.

These days, cop shows (comedy or drama) have squad room scenes, but the majority of each episode is spent in the community. We see far less character interplay and far more action sequences. The mystery takes precedence over the day-to-day bureaucracy of cop life.

Which is better? I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for in a story.

Personally, I prefer character-driven fiction, so I prefer the Barney Miller approach. Friends and Seinfeld were shows about “regular” people doing “normal” things, and they were incredibly successful. Barney Miller has the same feel to it. We don’t see the shootouts or the investigative legwork. We don’t see bomb disposal or victim discovery. We see paperwork, water cooler chat. Sarcastic quips between the detectives or between them and their suspects. As far as “regular” and “normal” goes, Barney Miller was ahead of its time.

It was also ahead of its time with respect to cast diversity. They really tried for a representative sampling of society. Barney was Jewish; Dietrich was agnostic (maybe atheist, I’m not sure). Wojo was Polish (and Catholic); Harris was black. Nick was Japanese; Chano was Puerto Rican. Fish and Luger were old; Levitt was short and complained about height-discrimination. There were also recurring female detectives and a gay officer.

Maybe I don’t watch the same shows as you, but it seems to me it was a long time after Barney Miller ended before we once again saw an ensemble cast who were so ethnically, religiously, and sexually diverse. (I’m not sure there was one before it, either.)

What Authors Can Learn from This

These days, there’s a strong market for action. And I enjoy action. I’ve written action. But why can’t we have both action and character interplay? I posit the following:

  • Stories can occur in only one setting and still be interesting.
  • Character interaction in that setting is “action” enough.
  • Relationships outside of that subset don’t need to be explored. That means explicit sex isn’t necessary. (I am a romance writer and I can admit that—provided a passionate scene isn’t something your audience expects. For example, a steamy romance has to have it. A sweet romance shouldn’t.) There was an episode where Wojo and a female detective were undercover at a hotel. What they did on their personal time was implied, but not shown, and the story still worked.
  • Violence isn’t necessary in police-centric stories.
  • Real life, even the tedious parts, don’t have to be boring.

I don’t know if I could write a novel set in only one room. It might be fun to try if I ever have the time. (And now I’m laughing.) But these are great points to consider for a short story, where subplots and secondary characters are kept to a minimum.

I admit, I like older television shows. There’s something about the simplicity and purity of them that today’s shows don’t possess. At least, not the ones I watch. That said, there are modern programs that entertain me because of the strength of story and the compelling characters, so please don’t think I’m dismissing contemporary television out of hand.

I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a favorite older show? A can’t-miss contemporary one? What do you look for in fiction these days—character interplay or fast-paced plots? Sound off below.

Staci Troilo

42 thoughts on “Merit in Older Works

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  2. Man, there were so many great shows back when. MASH, hands down, my fave. I’m a product of the 70s and 80s, so characters were, well, characters. All the 80s Rockford Files derivatives like Simon & Simon, Magnum PI, even so far back as Remington Steele and Columbo. And Seinfeld. Never watched it when it was on prime time, but caught it in syndication.

    I’ve got mixed feelings about the reboots. Hawaii Five-O–love the theme song, hot cast, but they get waaay too much done in one day (one day to plan and run an operation on a bad guy they just identified five minutes after discovering the dead body and associated plan to fill in bad guy crime stuff here). SWAT: seems better than I remember (I was pretty young back then) but the theme song is awesome. MacGyver: Sigh. The original had way more character, I think. And Mac’s inventions were more down to earth back then (making an engine exhaust detector out of a car stereo and a handy length of PVC? Really?).

    There have been some better “new” series, with a nice mix of characters and action: Castle had a nice balance, and Supernatural (okay, the characters really make that one). Hey, I’m all for a PP series 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I readily admit to being a Supernatural fan. I’ve seen every episode (many more than once) and I will keep watching until the last “Carry on My Wayward Son”. (That will be such a sad day.) But that speaks to character, doesn’t it? Without such great characters, that show would have fizzled out years ago.

      MacGyver, H50, SWAT… those shows are going for the action-factor. Nothing wrong with that, and there is character interplay (especially in the first two), but I’m more interested in Danny and McGarrett arguing over the restaurant than I am the domestic terrorism plot of the week (which, you’re right, gets solved in two unrealistic hours, not two months). It’ll be interesting to see if the show is renewed, given the cast changes. (I miss Chin Ho.) Without the characters that mean something to me, the stories fall flat.

      And MASH? I agree; the show was incredible. But as usual, I have to defer to Joan in that department. (She’s the expert.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Barney Miller was a great show. I think he went to negotiate on a different set in relation to the episode where he spent the night in jail. Really funny show that I still watch when i get the chance. I think Jack Soo’s literal last words before he went into surgery were to Hal Linden, “It must’ve been the coffee.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • They did a retrospective of him on the show rather than doing a regular episode. It was a touching send-off. Interestingly, the show never addressed what happened to him, although they did refer to him once in a while. I prefer to pretend he hit it big gambling and moved away. Jack Soo was a great loss.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the nostalgia bug has spread worldwide. My daughter and I have just started to re-watch Mash again, how brilliant it was, and still is. I have always been addicted to old movies and have a huge collection, watched ‘An Affair to Remember’ again last night … sigh! Ah, they really knew how to bring on the tears back then. As for the ‘reality’ shows … seriously? If I want reality I watch the news. I watch other programmes in order to escape from good ol’ reality for a while. Netflix is proving to be an amazing source of great programmes and some of the best ‘old’ films. Great post, Staci! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Soooz. I, too, enjoy MASH, but if you want to talk to the hands-down biggest fan, talk to Joan. I think she can recite every episode from memory. (It is brilliant.)

      I am going to have to look into some series on Netflix. I don’t really care for many of the network and cable offerings. But after February… I want to watch a lot of those old Oscar movies being rerun before the Academy Awards. And, of course, there’s my TBR list…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am a huge fan of older TV shows, and in consider myself a relic. I’ve got so many old and older series on DVD I’ve lost count. Barney Miller is one I don’t have, but hubby an I were, and are, huge fans. We still watch it today. I love when Harris and Dietrich banter.

    I read a lot of psychological thriller fiction and despite the “thriller” part of the genre there usually isn’t much action so much as mood, character development and head games. I’m also a fan of the Aloysius Pendergast series of thriller/suspense novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Pendergast does get caught in a number of “action” sequences, but I like him best when he’s being analytical and mentally pulling a case apart.

    As for contemporary TV, I hate the glut of reality stuff that makes up the bulk of programming today. I finally added Netflix a few months ago and normally end up there if I’m going to watch TV. Stranger Things is excellent, but the seasons are far too short.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post, and I loved BM too. You post reminds me of the Hitchcock classic Rope. The whole movie takes place in one room, and it’s awesome. It seems like there was a Henry Fonda one that took place in a jury room too. Guess it sticks with me, because I’m trying to write something similar right now.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Television or movies…doesn’t matter, I’m not a fan of remakes. Industry know-it-alls claim remakes are done out of appreciation and fandom, but to me it’s simply laziness and lack of creativity and originality. (Yeah, I’m that annoyed with remakes.)

    I miss shows like Barney Miller, Mary Tyler Moore, The Jeffersons, Facts of Life, Mannix (I just went WAY back), The Rockford Files, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction (another oldie), and Gunsmoke. I miss Ironside. And MASH. OMG, I miss MASH!

    With the cancellation of TNT’s Major Crimes last month, I have very little reason to turn on the television anymore. The classic movie channels don’t show classics but instead will schedule a dozen mediocre movies from the 90s a dozen times each.

    Can you tell I’m disgusted with TV programming? 😁

    Liked by 2 people

    • I LOVED the Rockford Files. You listed some great titles.

      I’m pretty sure February is Oscar month on either Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics. They just run Oscar winners all month leading to the Academy Awards show. I often watch that channel in February. (I used to watch for Casablanca, but now I just have it on “permanent keep” on my receiver, so I can watch it whenever I want.) Maybe you can find something there to watch. At least for another month. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  8. You already know I have a favorite (well two favorite) older shows. Like you, we have hundreds of channels (if it wasn’t for my husband, I’d ditch the satellite). I can’t seem to find anything worthwhile to watch unless it’s an older show. Lately, even John has taken to watching MASH marathons on the Sundance channel (even though we own all eleven seasons on DVD).

    Barney Miller was a great show – one that I enjoyed immensely. One of my favorite episodes was one not set in the squad room (I think it was a hotel) and I believe they were guarding a witness. Near the end of the episode, Dietrich was watching TV, but we couldn’t see what was on. Barney walks into the room and Dietrich says, “Taxi is on in five minutes.” Of course, Taxi did follow Barney Miller each night. Clever!

    I don’t think I could set a novel in one room but it might be fun to try with a short story. Good food for thought today!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think that might have been a two-parter. One of my favorite parts of it was watching Harris get progressively unkempt. It was driving him nuts, and it was hilarious to see him that way. (That Taxi Easter egg was cool, too. Wish that was on syndication somewhere.)

      We have the satellite for Pittsburgh sports, but I see your point. It’s not like I watch many of the stations.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I do enjoy older TV shows. Right now Dear Husband and I are working our way through The Dick Van Dyke Show, one episode every evening. I’m a little embarrassed to say this is the THIRD time we’re watching episodes of the sitcom! We haven’t found anything contemporary that is as appealing. I’m SURE there are good contemporary shows out there, but after wading through icky show after icky show, we just gave up and went back to the older ones we know we like.

    Thanks for pointing out Barney Miller’s limited set. I was worried my WIP was too limited in its setting, but now I’m thinking it’s not!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Oh, Rob! Er, I mean, oh, Priscilla! Nothing at all wrong with The Dick Van Dyke Show. Find something you like and stick with it.

      And I’m glad this post was timely for you. Don’t mess with your setting. If it’s working and it’s limited, then guess what? It’s working!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The simple yet effective scenes remind me of how powerful Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game was … most of the book had one character, handcuffed to a bed, and left for days … brilliant! No fast-action scenes. No complicated plot. Just one person in one room. I’d love to try something like this one day! Thanks for this post, Staci 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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