9.04.2008

Why TV?


This “Why TV?” question that BooM started about why we want to write for TV seems unavoidable now. When Michael tagged me, I tried to write the thing, but I think it was just too soon after all the bios and essays for various fellowships. I was all tapped out on talking about myself in essay-form. But now Josh has tagged me, and the essay is popping up on all sorts of blogs. So, uncle. I give. Here goes:

Like the other answers to this question that I’ve read so far, I’ve always been interested in writing. Stories have always been an important part of my life. The children’s books my brothers and I wanted to hear over and over until we memorized them. The books I loved. The TV, movies, comic books, cartoons, plays. But I don’t think I made the direct connection to writing itself until the fourth grade when we were required to write short stories to submit to the Illinois Young Authors Competition. It was probably the first homework assignment that didn’t stir my young ire up.

For whatever reason, Fourth-grade-me was incredibly determined to knock it out of the park. I worked for weeks on the story, writing and rewriting it. I crafted a little noir knock-off about the dog of a private eye who solves cases for the other neighborhood dogs. I recently reread it after my parents moved and my mom found it while unpacking. It’s surprisingly good. Fourth-grade-Adam evidently had a good grasp on genre and story. Which leads me to think I may be over-thinking things at present.

My mother typed it up and we bound it and I drew some pretty wonderfully childish illustrations for it. I ended up placing as a finalist, but not winning. (Fourth-grade-Adam and Present-day-Adam would have a lot to talk about.) But I loved the process. I loved working on it and showing the various versions to my mother. I loved seeing the final pages get typed up, seeing the story formed on the page. I loved having people read it. This little story opened up a little door to the writerly world for me.

From then on I wrote a whole scattered collection of short stories. Overwrought little wannabe-Graham-Greene pieces that I saved onto my relic of an IBM Compatible. And so as I went through high school my interests were pretty cemented in novels and films. For whatever reason, at this point I didn’t tap into my interest in television. I regarded it as a guilty pleasure, completely unaware of the concept that writers wrote those stories.

But TV was ingrained in my interests. I watched the shows my parents would watch – building up a TV lineage without realizing it. Northern Exposure, Columbo, Starsky & Hutch, Dr. Who, Picket Fences, M*A*S*H*, Cheers, Quantum Leap, etc. etc. I distinctly remember weekday evenings when my mom would make dinner in the kitchen. I was supposedly doing my homework, and she’d have Star Trek: TNG playing on the little black & white TV she kept on the counter, and I’d watch the episodes. I think that may have been the first show where I started to grasp the seasonal arcs of the stories. I got hooked into that, the continual feed of story.

And then the concept of having shows that I could relate to and enjoy on my own: Parker Lewis Can’t Lewis, Highlander, My So-Called Life, Buffy. It was in the era of VCR programming that I discovered the addictive joys of following a show. Oh God, when the temperamental VCR technology would goof and it wouldn’t record my show and I wouldn’t know what happened. Awful. Just awful. I still pain over never seeing the episode where Tessa dies on Highlander. Ugh – old wounds.

I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but TV was the perfect amalgamation of my interests: movies and novels. Telling stories on the screen with long story arcs and room for character development and theme and central conflicts. I loved it. But I was focused on other things.

So I went to school to study creative writing and theatre. I wrote and wrote. One act plays, stories, short films. I shot a short film and a no-budget feature which got me into grad school – where I continued to study film production and screenwriting.

But then, while loafing in academia, I met P. (I’ve been asked exactly who P is before. But P is kind of like Bertie Wooster. He’s a man about town, best left to allusions and abbreviations. Let’s just say he’s in the soup.) Anyway, P was an avante-garde filmmaker-to-be who fell in love with 90s era WB TV shows. P decided to make a splash in our department and shoot a 90s-WB-esque TV pilot for his thesis. How could you not be sucked in by that? I served as a second set of eyes for his script and helped him on his shoot. In his development process, P introduced me to Sports Night, Freaks & Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Gilmore Girls and others. I caught up on Twin Peaks, all things Whedon, Dead Like Me, etc. Very quickly, my old addiction took hold again.

So it was at the end of my grad school days that I finally opened my eyes to TV. The structure, the long-range story potential, the hours of character development. It incorporates everything I’ve always wanted and enjoyed in storytelling. Stories that unfold like life – and alongside it.

Good TV is like a good book – it sucks when it’s over. I love discovering new series. And now it’s incredibly easy to get them on DVD and devour them in a sickeningly short time span. Which I also love to do. But the idea of a story that can exist on the screen and be allowed to grow and develop or a period of years – it can’t be beat.

And I have to say some of the most fun I ever had in school was working with P on his thesis. The idea of working with a group of writers to concoct a new world of stories is just infectious – that writers can come together in a legitimate career to create shows that become a continual part of our culture. Sign me up.

Capra once said that film is like heroin. Well, for me, television is heroin. It’s an evolution of a lifetime of story addiction. And I’m just looking for a spoon.

Ps. So the idea is you respond, and then tag five people until they say uncle. Here’s my five: Maggie. Jane Espenson (why not?). Matt of Writerling. Lisa Klink. And Amy Berg (I know she doesn’t have a blog, but her boss does, and she’s mentioned getting one… hint hint).

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