What I’ve Learned From My TV Habit

With the return of (slightly) cooler weather, the appearance of Halloween items in Target, and lots of writing work to get done by the end of the year, I’ve sadly had to give up most of my slothful summer TV watching. Not that I’ve backed away from the remote control altogether of course–not with 2 of my very favorite shows on! Vampire Diaries had its season premiere last week, and Mad Men is more than halfway through season 4 (now officially Best Season Ever!). And I realized something as I watched Don Draper dragging himself up out of the muck on Sunday–all this TV time is not wasted. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from these 2 shows, one to apply to my own writing.

On the surface, Vampire Diaries and Mad Men are very different shows. “Young” vamps, humans, witches (and whatever Tyler is now) in a (supposedly) Southern town, falling in love, getting into terrible danger, violent events, and wearing cool clothes, and 1960s ad execs in New York falling in and out of love (sort of), getting into danger with internal demons and societal expectations, and wearing cool clothes. But they have one vital characteristic in common–nothing ever turns out like you expect. It’s always better, deeper, darker, more shocking. I don’t often shout at the TV, but I’ve recently done it with both these shows. “OMG, Damon didn’t kiss Elena, it was Katherine!” and “OMG, Betty opened the drawer!” Did not see those coming.

Where Vampire Diaries is very fast-paced, with vital plot twists in every episode and characters killed right and left, and Mad Men is famous for the slow burn (things build and build until we’re stunned by how it all explodes), these unexpected twists always come from the characters themselves. They’re never really out of left field, the actions and events arise from the characters’ flaws and secrets and desires. We’re not knocked over the head with how we’re supposed to think and feel about the characters, we’re allowed to figure things out on our own; no character is ever all good or all bad, but made of shades of gray.

These are also both very character-centered shows, as any romance novel centering on human relationships must be, and I like to think about plots in a Mad Men sort of way (not that Don Draper is any sort of hero!). What’s the unexpected twist, the sudden action, the mystery that arises from all we’ve learned about the characters and decisions they’ve made about themselves and what they want? What would they do when the moment of truth arrives, what is true for them and not a cliche?

Now it’s your turn! What are some of your favorite shows or movies, and what have you learned from them? Do you watch Mad Men or Vampire Diaries, and what do you think of the seasons so far? Is Betty still in love with Don, for secret, and will his reform last? What is Katherine really up to in Mystic Falls?

And on this day in 1812, the Moscow fires broke out. A good time to enjoy the 1812 Overture!

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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5 Responses to What I’ve Learned From My TV Habit

  1. Diane Gaston says:

    Oddly enough (because my TV watching habits are very odd), I don’t watch series shows. Last one I watched was True Blood, but then we gave up HBO. What I can say about that is that I appreciated the complex characters who all seemed to have levels (and secrets), and I also appreciated that you were always left with a very strong hook, so that you said, “I can’t wait til next week to find out what happens!”

  2. I’ve barely watched TV since I went back to work full-time in 2005 when my daughter was 18 months old, so I’m only vaguely aware of Mad Men, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and all the rest that my Twitter feed gets most twitterpated about. The last shows I followed religiously were Buffy and Angel, and the thing I learned from them, and from Joss Whedon in general, is to make secondary characters matter. Whether they’re the villain or the groom who saddles the heroine’s horse, they’re the hero of their own life’s story, and I try to remember that as I write.

    Currently I’m watching Castle because Nathan Fillion is yummy, but I’m still annoyed over the way his ex-wife showed up in the season finale just when Beckett was about to admit her feelings. It’s one thing to stretch out the development of a relationship, but that was a cheap way of doing it, IMHO. So I promise never to use any device that lame to keep a h/h apart!

    Other than that, I watch 30 Rock, which is hilarious but so far removed from my storytelling style I don’t think I’ve learned anything from it, and the occasional cooking competition show, especially Chopped because Ted Allen is so adorable. I think authors could learn all the ways NOT to behave around editors and agents online and at conferences just by watching the chefs gripe about the judges’ comments and complain about getting chopped.

  3. Elena Greene says:

    Pretty much since I’ve had kids it’s been hard to follow series, so when I get a chance, I watch cooking shows and stand up comedy. Mythbusters is fun when I catch it–sometime I must send them the story of a Peninsular War officer whose life was saved by the hard biscuit that stopped a musket ball.

    In the past, the series that attracted me always had unusual, quirky characters, from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock to the fun assortment of folks in Northern Exposure. I always want my characters to stand out and to mesh and clash in interesting ways.

  4. Elena, I love “Northern Exposure”! It’s one of my favorite series ever, I need to get out the DVDs and re-watch some of the episodes. I loved the quirky world it built.

    “is to make secondary characters matter.”

    Susanna, I totally agree with this. It’s one of the reasons I loved NE so much (and one of the great things about “Mad Men”)–we’re building a whole world around the hero/heroine

  5. I am a big fan of Mad Men and Vampire Diaries. Wouldn’t miss an episode of either program I think Betty is still in love with Don. Her marriage to Henry sounds like it’s heading for the skids. I think Don & Betty will end up back together…if not this season, then next year for sure! I’m also pleased to see more stories centered around Peggy. She is really growing into her part! She’s finding out she has a spine and spunk! I also have a thought in the back of my mind that something is going to happen between Peggy & Don. They’re not right for each other, but they both know so much about the other,,,it could be explosive!

    I love the dramas and next week being Premiere week will be great with the return of all my favorites and the start of some new shows. Can’t wait for the new HAWAII FIVE O with Alex O’Loughlin and the return of NCIS & L&O:SVU, just to name a few.

    I also love Dexter and True Blood, but I don’t have the premium channels, so I have to wait for the DVD.

    Another couple of good programs that will return after the first of the year are Justified on FX and Breaking Bad on AMC. Both are well worth watching!

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