From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sarah Allen's TV Guide for Writers

I wanted to do this for two reasons. First, whether you're specifically writing in the TV script genre or doing other stuff, I think all writers can learn a few things from what works in certain shows and what doesn't. One of my goals here is to look at my favorite shows and see what makes them work. Second, there are just some delightful and awesome shows out there, and talking about them makes me happy.

So here is Sarah Allen's TV Guide for Writers. Hope it helps:


For me, I can sum up the best thing about this show in three words--David Hyde Pierce. His portrayal of Niles Crane is honest, poignant and frankly adorable. Mostly I am referring to his infatuation with Daphne. One lesson I take from Niles is that quirky characters who are madly in love with someone they don't feel they could ever get are pretty much always totally loveable. The best parts of Frasier are the moments when Niles' love for Daphne becomes uncontainable and he almost spills the beans. So lesson from Niles is: quirky lovesick characters=good.

Another lesson from this show came from the fact that I actually don't really like Frasier himself. I don't know if this is the character himself or Kelsey Grammar, but I just think Frasier himself can be conceited and annoying. What is interesting about this is that I still adore the show, even though I don't quite connect with the main character. This makes me think of Harry Potter in some ways, particularly book five, when Harry himself becomes particularly obnoxious. Its all the characters around Harry (Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Neville, Lupin, Snape) that make the books particularly worth reading. This seems to say to me that your main character can be almost dislikable as long as there is at least one other character thats worth rooting for.

-The Big Bang Theory-

This show is simply delightfully written, and all the cast does such a great job. Again, the arguably main character, Leonard, is whiny and one of the more annoying characters, yet he is also a quirky character in love with someone he thinks is out of reach, which makes him likable. What is awesome about this show is watching a group of guys who don't fit in try and fit in. You see the characters struggle through awkwardness, waiting for moments when they get what they want. What I think we can learn from this show is that even characters that you may not think you can relate to (i.e., genius scientists with doctorates working at a university) can be made very accessible through real life, very human emotions like wanting the beautiful girl next door, and the struggle between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in.

-The Office-

In many ways this show is like Big Bang Theory in what it can teach us writers; most of these characters are awkward, average or just plain weird, and yet they have very human wants and hopes that help us relate to them. We watch the show, waiting for these very awkward, quirky characters to have moments of poignancy when they get what they've been wanting for a long time. At points this show is almost too awkward to bear, but those poignant moments when things work out are so satisfying, and are thrown into relief by the surrounding awkwardness. For example, Steve Carrell's portrayal of Michael Scott is brilliant; he is one of the most awkward yet lovable characters on TV. Most of the time he is being ridiculous, making the audience shake their heads and say, "Oh, Michael." But then he gets emotionally beat up and abandoned, and then we cut to a downtrodden and lonely Michael handing out Halloween candy to a bunch of kids, and then we feel deeply for him, and say "Oh, Michael" in a very different way. Those moments make us love him, and want him to be loved, even though most of the time he can be really frustrating.

Those moments are one thing that work for The Office, but look at it this way too; what if we related to those characters not because of their moments of niceness and poignancy, but because of their awkward loneliness? Which one is it? I think its probably both.

-Star Trek: The Next Generation-

Ok, I'm admitting my geekiness on this one, but I had to get something scifi out there, didn't I? And this show actually does have some great creative lessons. This show has a sense of awe for the universe and humanity that gives it scope and makes the viewer feel somehow grand. What I take as the best lesson from this show, (spec fiction writers take note), is that they use non-human characters to explore humanity. The best example of this is Data, brilliantly portrayed by Brent Spiner. Data is an android intrigued by humanity, and he explores human characteristics and what makes someone truly human. Again, this gives the characters and show scope. But it doesn't have to be speculative fiction in order for this principle to work. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge in Christmas Carol; he's an "inhuman" character who finds his humanity. This is what Star Trek does best.


There are so many things to learn from this show. Obviously action/adventure shows like this rely more on plot then on character, but I think I want to start with the latter. Like Frasier and Harry Potter, the main characters like Jack and Kate can often be frustrating and annoying. There are a couple awesome characters (Hurley) but actually, most of the characters on this show are not that memorable, and in all honesty a lot of the acting is just ok. With one ginourmous, incredible exception: Michael Emerson, i.e. Benjamin Linus. Every time he opens his mouth I am blown away. His line delivery and intensity are stunning. But despite my bias towards his superior acting, there are other reasons why I think Benjamin Linus is the best character on the show. It goes back to the moments of poignant humanity thing. As a character, Ben does some awful things, like killing his father and an entire town of people. He is manipulative, dishonest and makes things hard on everyone around him. But here's the thing; he is also very conflicted and confused, emotionally and physically beaten up and tossed aside, desperately lonely and in love. All this, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Emerson, creates one of the richest somewhere-between-villain-and-anti-heroes ever seen on television.

As for plot, the obvious lesson comes from the season three mistake; because the directors and writers had so much time to stretch out this story, it was stretched out too far. Questions weren't being answered and things weren't moving along. Once they got a deadline and started making things happen again, the show got back to its awesome old self. So never let your story lapse, always keep it clipping along. On a more positive note, the complications and story and intertwining of characters on the show is frankly genius, and just plain awesome. Any book would be made more intriguing with the complex, involved kind of plot that Lost has.

Anyway, there's some of my favorite shows and what creative writers can learn from them. I'm sure I'll be writing about them in the future, but this is a good start.

Hope it helps!
Sarah Allen


  1. Hi Sarah,
    I've come here from the Goodreads site; I love Frasier too - the show and Frasier himself, in spite of his annoying ways. As a UK watcher, I've just bought the first series on CD, because we didn't get into it straight away. And you're right about Niles.

  2. Thanks for your comments! Frasier is a great show, and DHP is fantastic. And I'll admit it, I do own all 11 seasons :-p

  3. @Sarah: Popped by from Harriet. Frasier! Aaaaaaaaagh agh agh agh agh! De gustibus, non disputandum, man. Anyway, my two cents ($CDN - you work out the exchange) - TV is bad for writers. Personally avoid it like the plague, as if it's on it a)absorbs my attention and b)puts me into some kind of mind-control trance. 'Course, I get those a lot anyway. Heh. Of course, the fact I am aware of Frasier proves my impurity, but we all struggle (smugly goes back to watching animated Star Treks on Youtube)


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