THE LITTLE SCREEN, LITTLE NO MORE
by Jon Land
You know, it’s funny. I’m a screenwriter as well as a novelist and have always gleamed a lot of my inspiration for both mediums from great storytelling as portrayed on film. And it’s great writing that makes for great storytelling. I can’t count even count how many times I’ve watched The Godfather, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects. I can recite lines from those films and countless others ad infinitum. But not lately. Nope, not hardly.
That’s because in a pop culture paradigm shift television, once the bastard stepchild of entertainment media, has easily surpassed film when it comes to the quality of the writing and, thus, storytelling. I can’t explain when or why exactly this has occurred, other than to say the Hollywood film factory seems to require at least ten different screenwriters polishing or rewriting this, that and the other thing to the point where the integrity of the tale they’re telling is lost. You just can’t have that many hands stirring the pot. It doesn’t work. Never did, never will, in stark contrast to television where the executive producer/head writer is the king. Want proof? Okay, here’s a look at where you can find it.
1) BREAKING BAD: Maybe the best written and told show in television history. Dark and humanizing while it’s relentlessly suspenseful and character driven. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White character is the show’s amoral center to spectacular results. A now bad guy redeemed only by the endless parade of even worse bad guys with whom he’s forced to contend. No television series has ever boasted so many classic episodes and pitch perfect writing.
2) MAD MEN: The cutthroat world of advertising has never been portrayed better and there has never been a show with such sharply defined and distinctive leads whose ambition is exceeded only by their self-loathing. Don Draper offers a fresh side of a different coin from Walter White. But what does it say where, for all his flaws, Don has evolved into the show’s moral conscience. MAD MEN, with its spot on depiction of corporate greed and infighting, takes us back to the 60s to teach us about who we are today.
3) HOMELAND: Two seasons in, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Clare Danes and Mandy Patinkin manage to extract Emmy-winning performances from every minute of screentime. The show is a masterful character study as well as magnificent puzzle, giving the viewer credit for the kind of intelligence that stopped being a factor for the film industry even before the last turgid installment of TRANSFORMERS. This is human drama done on a grand scale where we can actually feel the pain the characters are feeling.
4) DEXTER: All you need to now about two seasons ago was that the villain was played by Colin Hanks, who never would’ve worked a day in his life in front of the camera if not for his last name. But the just included more recent season erased all memory of that, turning the tables on Dexter Morgan pretty much everywhere. DEXTER challenges are own morality even as it pushes the limits of our tolerance and makes us accept a serial killer as hero. It’s one thing to be really good; it’s quite another to be really good for this many seasons and to recover from a nearly disastrous one as well.
5) JUSTIFIED: The modern-day western motif done about as good as it gets. The producers were smart enough to stay true to the voice of Elmore Leonard and hit a homerun by casting Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens. Right from the series’ very first where Raylan pays a visit to a Miami thug he gave twenty-four hours to get out of town one minute past the deadline, we know we’re in for something special. Packed with an outstanding supporting cast, season after season JUSTIFIED manages to string an entire season’s arc together while maintaining the independent nature of every episode.
6) THE GOOD WIFE: The epic disaster of Calinda’s husband not withstanding for the current season, this is the best scripted show on network television. A perfect mix of courtroom tension, corporate politics and family issues. I don’t know if there’s ever been a scripted drama that has worked on so many levels for so long while showing no signs of fatigue. The show continually strikes a perfect balance, entertaining us wholly while making us think just enough. Each episode ends with me counting down the days to the airing of the next one.
7) THE WALKING DEAD: Angst, pain, heartache, hope, hopelessness, struggle, heroism, tragedy—never has a television show pushed so many buttons from one minute and one scene to the next. Characters, the ones who survive anyway, actually change and grow, although not necessarily for the better, against an ultra-violent backdrop that is definitely not for the squeamish. We don’t just live with them in season, we breathe with them. The sight of a pistol packing, twelve-year-old zombie killing machine in this year’s very first scene was all you needed to see to know we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
One final note: As a thriller writer, I find it fascinating that each of these is essentially a thriller but in utterly different ways and approaches. The great John D. McDonald, author of the Travis Magee series, was once asked to define what makes a great story. His answer was simple: Stuff happens to people you care about. And about the great writing to be found on television today, truer words have never been spoken.
About the author:
Jon Land is the critically acclaimed author of 32 books, including the bestselling series featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong that includes Strong Enough To Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance (July 2012), and Strong Rain Falling (August 2013). He has more recently brought his long-time series hero Blaine McCracken back to the page in Pandora's Temple (November 2012). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
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Mr. Land has graciously offered to giveaway one ebook set of his Blaine McCracken titles published through Open Road Media. These titles include: The Omega Command, The Alpha Deception, The Gamma Option, The Omicron Legion, and The Vengeance of the Tau.
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