– Or YES, Good Writing Does Still Exist in TV Shows

– Also, Why American TV Occasionally Sucks

Allow me to be self-indulgent and annoying for a second and quote an episode of Sherlock –

Jim Moriarty: Do you know what happens if you don’t leave me alone, Sherlock? To you?
Sherlock Holmes: Oh, let me guess, I get killed?
Jim Moriarty: Kill you? No, don’t be obvious. I mean I’m going to kill you anyway, someday. I don’t want to rush it though. I’m saving it up for something special. No no no no no. If you don’t stop prying… I will burn you. I will burn… the heart out of you.
Sherlock Holmes: I have been reliably informed that I don’t have one.
Jim Moriarty: But we both know that’s not quite true.

This section of text seems entirely irrelevant without the voices of the actors, the scene, the context. Yet – and maybe this is because I’ve seen this scene before and have had time to process it – this scene conveys so much on it’s own. The insanity of Moriarty, the stubborn, emotionless Holmes. Or, the seemingly emotionless Holmes. I’m going to stop myself now, before this turns into a rant about Sherlock Holmes in literature in general, because that’s not what this post is about (though it is horribly tempting to change topics).

What strikes me about this script – or, to be more specific, section of dialogue – is how simple it is, and yet how creepy is can remain, even in it’s lifeless “text-on-a-page” state. What this tells me is the writer’s of this show know what they are doing; a skill many seem to lack in television these days.

Allow me to be self-indulgent once again and quote How I Met Your Mother, so that I may prove a point-

Ted: I’m gonna do what that guy couldn’t, I’m gonna take the plunge… Well, I guess that’s not a perfect metaphor since… for me it’s falling in love and for him it’s… death.
Barney: Actually, that is a perfect metaphor.

Now, I’m not going to lie here – I love How I Met Your Mother. And I can perfectly visualize this scene in my head. But I don’t hear it, I don’t feel it. It’s a cheap joke that’s been reposted on a blog, written by a blogger who assumes she has something intelligent to say about the world. The words are lifeless and hold no meaning. I can’t even bring my self to laugh at it. This, unfortunately, is true of most shows that I watch – they are less memorable and I lose the desire to watch them and geek out over the small details.

Now, to be fair, Sherlock is a drama, and HIMYM is a comedy. They don’t operate on the same level generally – my inner need to analyze the living crap out of a TV show is going to be more pronounced when I watch a modern drama over a modern comedy. But I feel like society (American society, specifically) has relegated the comedy to a silly, void-of-meaning medium. Sitcoms are there to make you laugh once, and then you never really go back. They rely on cheap jokes in the worst case, life-situations in the best. But comedies can be funny and contain meaning [read: Anything by Oscar Wilde (playwise)]. Dramas in the US don’t fair much better, as they often end up focusing too much on action and not enough on story.

So why does this happen? It happens for several reasons, the most important (and disappointing one) is that stories and storytelling don’t make money in the United States. And I would wager that making money is a major factor in picking shows for a Television Station. this makes sense – you have to pay the actors, directors, camera men, make up artists, broadcasters, etc. What’s sad about this emphasis on money making is that story falls to the wayside. If a show doesn’t catch on immediately, it’s scrapped. If the show follows a familiar formula that has already proven to make money, then it will probably be picked up. This leads to an over saturation of terrible writing by people attempting to make a buck.

(There are exceptions to this, of course. Lost and The Mentalist being among them.)

The problem with TV, at least here, is that over saturation. Let’s take a look back at Sherlock for a second. Sherlock is a wildly successful British TV show that focus’ on accuracy and loyalty to the source material while modernizing the main characters and making them People. The scripts are brilliant, at times filled with laughter, and then shaking with sadness. The scripts are alive before they are acted, and when they given to the actors, the scripts become real. It engages the audience, and makes them connect with the stories on an emotional level.

What did the US take away from this? “LET’S MAKE OUR OWN SHERLOCK. IT MAKES MONEY.”

There are several problems with this; first among them being that Sherlock Holmes is an inherently English story. He belongs in London, on Baker’s street, and any attempt to Americanize it would be disappointing at the least. Secondly, I have little faith in the passion of American screen-writers. I have the feeling that this version will lack all of the wit, the venom, the terror, and terrible sadness of the original. Now, i could be wrong, but in the case of Americans Americanizing British Television, the record is currently something like 0-2.

I believe that this spurs from a distinct lack of appreciation for stories in our culture. We want our stories fast, conflict heavy, and action oriented. We want our comedies vaguely funny and enjoyable. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it has caused the Media-at-Large to believe that we don’t care what we consume. That we don’t care about stories. So they feed us formulaic television, and hope that we don’t notice that 2 Broke Girls is essentially a really bad take on Friends – only with two girls who are vapid and lack the mental complicity to do anything interesting. (Again, there are exceptions. Psyche and Modern Family are both fantastic comedies – because the writer’s know their characters [in Psyche] and know how normal people function [in Modern Family]. Baseline: They know what they are doing.)

Yet, some of the best shows on television are hour-long, story-oriented shows. I do very much believe people like to be engaged in their stories, and what screen writers need to realize is that if they put passion into their script and pay attention, try to comprehend what they are doing, then the show will catch on. I’m not saying do away with the sitcoms – I’m saying give stories, Real Stories, a chance. They may, in fact, surprise you.