Sometimes, I have lived through long eras without watching television. My freelance schedule and my creative schedule usually don’t make me available for shows at their scheduled air times. This usually translates to me taking a holiday or a few days off to binge watch. I think it’s great that we now have this option. It takes customized TV-watching to a whole new level. I have watchedOrange is the New Black, Being Erica, Luther, and Drop Dead Diva this way.
As a writer, what I’ve enjoyed most about digesting an entire season or series in a couple of sittings is how close I’m connected to the entire arc of a character. I’m able to clearly see a character’s emotional start and where he ends during the last episode. Sometimes, I am even able to pick up when the writers might have been given notice that the show would not be renewed for another season. They start tapering storylines, fizzling out romances, adding the “1 year later” on-screen scene text and killing off characters. These are things I don’t pay much attention to if I am watching a show on-schedule. I am more interested in plot, personalities and show popularity than anything else when something shows up on Prime Time.
Recently, I re-watched the entire Brothers & Sisters ABC series created by Jon Robin Baitz and Ken Olin. Of course, I couldn’t have known it at the time it was still in production, but there are a few things I think this show has in common with Shonda Rhimes‘ Scandal series. Kitty MacCallister may have been doing moderate “fixing” before we knew to call it that, on the high-stakesOlivia Pope level. There’s also a gay couple who faces the challenges of surrogacy/adoption, including the fact that one of them is initially not sure he wants a baby. I hope the Church of Shonda, of which I am a faithful follower, does not take this wrong way. I am in no way suggesting that Shonda lifted story ideas from Baitz and Olin. She’s the most exciting TV writer whose work I’ve encountered in a while. I am saying that the medium itself tends to breed similar story scenarios. The skill of writing is in making the storylines and plot twists very different from anything you’ve ever seen before. Shonda Rhimes achieves that.
There are many writers who will not ever admit that they got inspiration from other writers or other writers’ works. This is such a stifling way for me personally to develop as a writer. Of course, other writers inspire me. If I didn’t read other works, I would have no meter for what is possible, what has been done and should never be done again. There has been only one other writer who takes a different position, and it’s somewhat compelling and believable to me: Olympia Vernon. Her positions are not mine and do not work for me, but I definitely see how they work for her. She does not give nod to the influences that people like to assign to her. In a 2009 blog interview when she was asked if James Byrd, who was murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas in 1998, had any bearing on the creation of her novel A Killing In This Town,she quickly said no. In fact, when I was first introduced to her work through a mutual friend, I learned of her reputation for distancing herself from literary influence. She told most people who asked that she was her own influence. It is the way she chooses to believe/in her characters.
My recent Brother & Sisters binge watching was very helpful to me creatively. I’ve been storyboarding one story in my work pile for at least a year. The characters continue to speak to me, and I continue to write down what they say. Something about the way the story was coming through me was not fresh, though. The ideas for the story come from experiences in my own life. After watching the Baitz & Olin storylines, though, it would be easy for someone to say that they are a primary influence. Some of the truths of my story are the same, though the facts are somewhat different. As a spectator, I got to feel the moments in their story that were the most profound and know what made an impact. As a creator, I got to see the skill of other creators’ execution. I reminded myself that this wonderful show was not cancelled because the writing sucked, but because the network did not have the funding to keep it going for a 6th season. That’s the risk of writing for TV.
My story is not really a TV series, but my binge session is now sending me back to my storyboard ready to be fresh, open to creating the thing I haven’t really seen before.