five television shows every prose writer should watch

27 Feb

5. Sex and the City

Okay, so, most of the shows on this list should come as no surprise to anyone who voraciously consumes television. Thus, I wanted to start this list off by offering something totally unexpected. Although Sex and the City veered off course a bit in its later seasons, the show started out as an incisive exploration of sex and romance in early-aughts Manhattan, employing a faux-documentary style that highlighted the show’s journalistic roots. Sex and the City, at its best, teaches you (you, the aspiring writer) how to mine your life and the lives of the people around you for not only stories, but for understanding. Carrie–at least in the first few seasons–is a cultural anthropologist, constantly amassing a wealth of information from others as a way of making sense of her own life. That’s definitely a skill writers–people who are typically inward-thinking and sometimes navel-gazing–should learn.

4. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is pure Shakespearean drama, charting one man’s quest for and eventual obsession with power. But Breaking Bad isn’t any old show about a drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan created the show as a way to explore what happens in between a man’s quest for power. Good writers use their plot to give their story forward momentum; but great writers take time to explore those moments that happen in between plot points. Gilligan could have been lazy and coasted off of his premise–“high school chemistry teacher with cancer begins meth empire” kind of sells itself, don’t you think? The real beauty of Breaking Bad is the way it unfolds slowly, allowing time for its characters and its setting (a character in and of itself really) to breathe.

3. The Wire

The Wire is sometimes hailed as The Great American Novel filmed for television and anyone who has seen more than one episode of it knows how ridiculously accurate this is. If ever there was a show that demanded its audience’s attention, it would be The Wire. The show requires you to do a close reading of it, just as you would with great literature. The show, created by David Simon, a former investigative reporter, subverts any and all expectations of a cops-versus-criminals show and instead seeks to expose the ways in which the system fucks us all. There are no good guys on the show and there are no bad guys; there are just people–people who have equal claims to “rightness”, whatever that might mean. The show is basically a hip-hop infused Dickens novel, one that is sprawling and methodical. (If Kendrick Lamar had written Hard Times, it would probably have come out looking something like The Wire.) It succeeds in the same way that all of the best works of literature succeed: by remaining passionately objective, by taking the time to present both sides of a philosophical argument.

2. Mad Men

One of the deadliest weapons in the writer’s arsenal is the ability to craft seriously flawed characters into people with whom the audience can both empathize and sympathize. No show boats more characters more flawed than Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. Weiner created Don Draper as a means of exorcising his worst inclinations towards his own family, and yet we cannot help but root for Don–in spite of his myriad extramarital affairs and his general disregard for the feelings of others. More than that, though, Mad Men accomplishes something many writers prose writers get tripped up on: letting the characters dictate the story instead of world-building. World-building is something that dogs writers of science fiction and historical fiction especially, but not exclusively. It is tempting, when writing about an unfamiliar environment, to let the setting tell the story. Mad Men could have EASILY fallen into this trap; the show’s setting, 1960s Madison Avenue, is one of the most enticing things about the series. But Weiner subverts this expectation at almost every turn, keeping the show grounded in its characters.

1. Louie

Louie is kind of like a collection of linked short stories–something in the vain of Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. The series, if you haven’t seen it (stop reading this and go check it out, seriously) centers on a fictionalized and humbled version of the show’s creator, comedian Louis C.K. C.K deftly employs this rendering of himself to explore typical situations that befall an artist living in Manhattan, mining each and every situation for its inherent sadness and absurdity. More than any other show on this list, Louie has completely singular voice; everything in the show can only come from one guy’s twisted mind. and it does: C.K has written and directed every single one of the show’s thirty-something episodes. Everyone who has read Diaz’s prose knows that his prose style is wholly his own and unable to be replicated by anyone else. Louie is definitely the televised equivalent of that. As such, the show is a master class in perfecting one’s artistic voice–quite possibly the single most difficult feat for any writer of prose to pull off.


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