Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

How I Would Fix Television

Inspired by a recent Entertainment Weekly article, one of many lamenting the most recent wave of TV shows to fail, I decided to share my thoughts on how the networks have failed us as well as what they could do to save us.

1. Most of the new shows made are dumb. By that I mean that they aren’t smart, and they don’t treat viewers like they are smart. 1600 Penn was a bad idea; Americans don’t think the Presidency is funny, and a comedy about the White House is going to fail. Veep, btw, is satire, not comedy, which is why that show about a vice president and her team works. Snarking at politicians is a national pastime and makes for smart TV. Most people enjoy shows with a mystery element — cop shows, courtroom dramas, medical shows, spy thrillers — because there is a problem that is solved as the story progresses. Humans are built to solve problems. Even being a passenger in the process gets the happy parts of our brains firing.

2. TV shows cannot exist in the middle ground. We like shows that are either very close to home, such as The Office (many of us work in offices), or are very far removed from our reality. Justified does this for me. I don’t have any experience with US marshals or the hills of Eastern Kentucky. He could be a law-enforcement office on Mars, and I would probably still watch it. Viewers want to have an emotional reaction to the things we experience, or we want to escape from the day and find entertainment in the unknown. Shows that exist in the middle distance, sort of like our everyday but not exactly, have a much harder time surviving.

Medical drama + Jeckyl&Hyde = Do No Harm… yeah, pass.

Buddy cop show + Jeckyl&Hyde = might work if it laughs at itself or if it is edgy (Staying in the middle is a no-no)

High school drama + Jeckyl&Hyde = episodes would write themselves (We all went to high school = close distance. What if you acted like a different person?)

Medical drama + Jeckyl&Hyde + on a spaceship = much more interesting because the environment is limited

3. Don’t be everything to everyone. Heroes could have been great. It could have gone the distance, but it struggled from trying to be so accessible to everyone that it became bland. It needed to find its edge, then go live right on that line. It was a show about superheroes with superpowers. Why would you dull that down, unless you were afraid that not everyone likes superheroes. If that is your worry, then don’t make the show. Interesting stuff happens on the edge; it doesn’t happen when a show is appealing to the masses. Make it interesting, please.

4. Where have all the interesting characters gone? House worked because we hated to like him, hated to agree with him, and hated when his luck turned bad. We wanted to save him, but by saving him worried we would lose what made House himself. More time needs to go into character development before some of these shows hit the screens. Give them some real flaws, and make the characters suffer because of them. Mary Sue will be alive and well as long as there is network TV.

So this list is very much like writing a book.  Well-developed characters + intriguing setting + fresh plotlines + surprising details = enjoyable entertainment.  Genre fiction is meant to entertain.  Literary fiction may have higher aspirations, but after I’ve had a crappy day with a crappy boss and crappier coworkers, I just want to set my brain on forgetaboutit.  I’m looking for an experience.

What would I do to fix television?

Let me answer that with another question — why are reality shows so popular?  Because the audience can either participate (voting on American Idol anyone?) or can envision themselves having the same experience.  If you have shows that can do both, it should be a win-win.  I strongly recommend the use of social media to shape the show.  The future is coming (or is that Winter is coming?)

Example 1: High school drama in neo-Victorian setting (I recommend steampunk elements, but hey, it’s what I like).  Have the kids wear uniforms (saves on the wardrobe budget).  Have writers develop 75% of the script beforehand, but allow 1-2 decisions each week to be made by the fans.  They go online, they vote, then those scenes are filmed.  The decisions can be big or small, but the participation is vitally important.  Viewers will want to watch that show as the story unfolds.  Seeing it later on the DDR and missing out on the process will be a lesser experience.  It might not matter in the overarching plot who takes Belle to the ball, but it will matter to the fans.

Example 2: Buddy cop space opera.  Again, uniforms, green screens, save money to pay the script writers.  The buddy cops track down bad guys.  As the clues unfold, you learn if the criminals are really bad or if they are serving a greater good.  Let the fans decide what the cops do.  If they vote to let the criminals go too often, let it come back to bite the cops in the butt.  Good dialogue is a must as well as some action choreography.  Just get some MMA personality to be an advisor on the show.

A bit simplistic, I know, but there has to be a better way of doing things than the current morass.  Somebody buy the Syfy network and give it to me.  I’ll fix Television.

9 comments on “How I Would Fix Television

  1. Przemek Kucia
    February 18, 2013

    Great post.

    House is exception that confirms the rule – it is basically rewritten Sherlock Holmes… So yeah, there are this much interesting characters (or archetypes) human population can create. It sounds pessimistic, but hey, if House worked out so well why not to make use of remix culture a little bit more? One of the best stories in games recently is Dishonored which is a mix of The Plague by Camus, steampunk, and clever development of gray-area characters.

    My point is, if it feels fresh (plot-line or character) it is fresh – even if it isn’t that much original.

    • tracycembor
      February 19, 2013

      I think most of the Sherlock Holmes-type shows seem to work, whether they are silly or serious — Monk, Life, Psych, Wire in the Blood, Elementary, and, of course, Sherlock. There’s some dynamic between the everyman character and the exceptional ecentric that engages audiences. Not sure what it is, but I bet there is a TED Talk about it. ;)

      If anyone likes Homeland, go watch Damian Lewis in Life. It was a show on NBC, and it was soooo cool. Wire in the Blood gets a bit intense for me sometimes, but the storytelling is fresh and enjoyable.

      Storytelling has gotten so good in video games. I’m glad you mentioned them. I don’t play that much anymore, but I am present for the playing of many games. Red Dead Redemption was amazing, and it is hard to find fault with the Mass Effect and Assasin’s Creed series. Dishonored is on the list for this spring, but there’s this book I really need to finish first…

  2. Katie
    February 18, 2013

    I think I agree with everything in this post! If I could give you that network, that would be great…I don’t understand how they can afford to make soooo mannyyyyy bad movies for that channel. I would much rather watch Example 1.

    • tracycembor
      February 19, 2013

      I had a friend point out to me that Example 1 is very similar to Revolutionary Girl Utena, an anime I watched in college. I promise, I didn’t do it on purpose.

      Syfy is so sad. I remember when Farscape was on that station. That was the golden age. Now that science fiction and fantasy are mainstream (thanks Game of Thrones and True Blood), the only shows on Syfy are wresting and infomercials.

      • Katie
        February 20, 2013

        What’s up with that anyway? How is fake wrestling in any way related to Syfy? Sigh.

        Anime is not so bad. Never saw that one though.

      • Katie
        February 20, 2013

        Oh yes, and technicalities…I nominated you back for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. :)

  3. Anthony Turi
    February 19, 2013

    This is such an interesting article. If I could give the view from over on this side of the Atlantic… I’ve been meaning to write a blog entry about American TV for a while and hope to get round to it soon… Here in the UK, despite the flaws in American TV, I still think there is much we could learn from you guys…. I agree with your comments about House… Interestingly. the US version of the Office is brilliant – they’ve taken the UK show and surprised me with how well they done with it. Such a fun, clever show… Community is also a briiliant example of a sit-com that plays with genre (is it popular over there? It’s got a cult following over here)… Not quite sure what counts as Network TV – so will need to go off and google to clarify. Does it include HBO, and AMC? So much good stuff coming out of those channels in the last few years… Finally, I totally agree with your comments about Heroes. That show was all set to be brilliant – it started so promisingly, but then collapsed into just a series of conflicts between the Heroes. Why didn’t they have more interactions between the Heroes and non-Heroes? They could have done so much with that… Sorry! I’ve gone on there, but your article prompted a lot of thoughts, and this is an interest of mine. At any rate, thank you for such an interesting, well-written – and thought-provoking :-) – post

    • tracycembor
      February 19, 2013

      Glad to hear an opinion from someone not inside the US. I feel like half the shows here are programmed to make us dumb, and the other half are waiting for someone to come around and ruin them. (No, I’m not paranoid. Why do you ask?)

      It’s cool that the UK likes the US version of The Office. Some of the episodes still make me uncomfortable, although not so much as in the Michael Scott (Steve Carell) days. I am in love with Community, but I think it has more of a cult following than true popularity here. The network has changed around when the show will air, which has hurt it. I also identify with the group dynamic because I attend the third largest university in Georgia, but it is treated like a community college. Some of my group projects have felt as weird as some episodes. Good heavens!

      Network TV usually means ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and their affiliate stations, which is where it gets crazy. I would mostly say that everything that is not HBO, Showtime, and other premium channels, could fall under network TV these days. (If someone has a better definition, let me know.)

      Some shows I’m currently watching on TV are Person of Interest, Justified, Girls, The Americans, and Suits. Hmmm, maybe I should elaborate on those. No worries for the long comment, and thanks for sharing!

  4. Christi
    February 20, 2013

    I love your recipe for a good story: “Well-developed characters + intriguing setting + fresh plotlines + surprising details = enjoyable entertainment.” It would be great if the networks would do some of these things! Great post!

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on February 17, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , .

Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

Weekends are reserved for my Music Playlist.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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