Friday, January 15, 2016

Choosing to Read Books in a Digital Age, Part 2: Stories on the Small Screen

As I mentioned in part one of this wildly popular series (Hi, Nicole!  Thanks for reading!), I didn't have a TV until I was 31.  In 2001 I married a man who had a TV in the kitchen, in the bedroom, and in the living room.  For those that struggle with math, that's three televisions for one person.  The first two went away quickly and without much pushback from him, since I was now there to keep him company in both locations, if you get my drift.  The third TV moved into the little den off the entry way, and, in the spirit of compromise, it became about five thousand times bigger.

We didn't watch TV or use the DVD player all that often. My husband is a sports fan, so that was the primary purpose of keeping one.  We are both on the cheap side, so no cable for us.  Sometime in that first year or so, my sister loaned us her box set of season one of Alias.  We were hooked from the first episode, and after burning through that season over the weekend, I started checking out the subsequent seasons from the library, until we were caught up and watched the last season and a half in "real time."

Watching a TV show that way was a revelation for me.  First, no commercials.  As a reader, I can't imagine having to stop every chapter to read a bunch of unrelated garbage, so why would a television viewer be willing to do halt the narrative flow to be sold stuff?  Second, I read fast, and I like to finish a book in as few sessions as possible.  If I get into a television show, how could I possibly maintain interest over weeks and years?  Binge watching solved both of these issues.


A new problem eventually became noticeable.  When an author plots a novel, or even a series, there is some end point in mind.  The questions are answered, conflicts are resolved, and there is a sense of closure.  Serial TV shows are completely different.  The story arc might be a single episode, which gives closure, but quickly gets dull.  If it's a season long story, it has much more potential to be complex and compelling, but then what do you do the next season?  If you're Alias, you come up with several great twists that completely reignite the show...then eventually you run out of believable ideas and start bringing people back from the dead and using the old "I was actually someone ELSE wearing a MASK that made me look like that OTHER person for the ENTIRE SEASON" thing. Which is dumb.

Since the days of Sidney and Jack, I've fallen for many other shows this way.  Our decision to subscribe to Netflix (the cheap, streaming-only version, of course), opened up even more options.  Some start strong, then start getting ridiculous, out of plot but still turning a profit.  One was cancelled prematurely--of course, the one that seemed to have a multi-season vision.  (And most of you already know what show I'm talking about.)  It is almost unheard of for a show to still make narrative sense by its finale, but a few managed it.  These then, are the TV shows that have brought me as much story-joy as books do.


Some shows I've enjoyed, but not LOVED include Elementary, Continuum, Broadchurch, Jessica Jones, the first season of Heroes, and the first two seasons of Glee.  I haven't felt up to the commitment of watching Game of Thrones, Downton Abby, or Dr. Who.  I feel like sit-coms don't count, since they don't have the same narrative drive, but I've laughed my ass off at That Seventies Show, Friends, and...okay, that's about it.  

Cancelled Too Soon

Firefly, of course.  The movie was great, but still didn't have time to explore all the strands Whedon was weaving.  Watching this show is like reading the first 70 pages of an amazing book, then finding out that the remaining 230 pages are blank.  

Great Shows with Lousy Finales

Sawyer...such a reader!

Lost.  This was the second show we watched, at the insistence of our friend Adam.  He invited us over and showed us the first season on DVD, then we watched a bunch more on our laptops, on the NBC website, of all things.  By the time we got caught up, Adam was just out of a long-term relationship, and it became a weekly date for the three of us to get together, have dinner, and watch Lost.  It was so fascinating, and they did a great job at maintaining interest by bringing in other timelines and points of view, but the end was...disappointing.

Battlestar Galactica (modern version).  Adam talked us into this one too, and after Lost, we were willing to believe him.  My husband didn't make it through the whole series, but I loved every minute of it...except, say, the last two episodes.

La Femme Nikita (Canadian version).  When we were watching Alias, I started religiously reading episode reviews on what is now  I loved the quality of Billie's analysis and her enthusiasm for great story telling.  She spoke highly of Nikita in comparison to Alias, so I decided to give it a try.  Darker and more romantic--until the last episodes, when they basically said, "Oh, to hell with it" and ret-conned most of the series in a really disappointing way.

Started Great, But Lost Their Way Over Time

Alias.  See above.  

Veronica Mars The first two seasons of VM just might be the best TV I've ever seen.  Complex and lovable characters, witty banter, peril and mystery, willing to address class and race, and with maybe the hottest first kiss I've seen, this show was freakin' awesome.  Then season three came along, and was lame and annoying.  

Close To Perfect

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I was doubtful.  Buffy? The Vampire Slayer?  But the entire review site of Doux Reviews raved constantly about the show.  So, some ten years after the series ended, when I was the age of the parents in the show instead of the protagonists, I started season one.  Luckily, the site also pointed out that it didn't really get good until midway through season two, so I persevered until then.  They were right.  It was terrific.  And it just kept getting better.  There were rocky periods, of course, and Buffy fans will always argue about the correct ranking of the different seasons, but the ending was enormously satisfying.  This show had heart, and brains, and artistic brilliance.  I watched the episode where Buffy's mom dies ("The Body") about six months after my own mom died, and cried like a baby, because they nailed it.  NAILED IT.  

Sherlock  So unfortunate that they tapped two great talents for this show just as their careers exploded, leaving them little time for television, and yet of course, the talent of Cumberbatch and Freeman are what make this show.  Well, that and the writing.  And all the other actors.  SO GOOD.

What TV shows do you think are worth putting down a book for?  Do you see television as having any narrative advantages over books?  When I say "The long-term plotting of all but the best 1% of television is vastly inferior to that of any decent novel," do I sound like a complete twat, or what?  Given my taste in shows, do you have any to recommend?  

Also, that was my first attempt to use gifs.  Phew!  Sorry if they're a little wonky.  


  1. Hi, I am dropping by from HEADFULLOFBOOKS with the titles of the Challenge to read all the Youth Media Award winners. The titles were announced this week and now we get down to reading them. Thanks for joining me. YMA Challenge at Headfullofbooks

  2. I hardly binge-watch because I get bored easily. That being said, I love watching TV shows. I only watch a few but these are the good ones: Game of Thrones (really, really, REALLY good), The Walking Dead (first 4/5 seasons on Netflix), Fringe (on Netflix) super awesome sci-fi-ish series, Psych (also on Netflix) is a comedy about a "psychic" consultant to the police dept.

    My husband also loves Elementary but I got bored with that. LOL and I did not like Dr. Who at all.

    1. Hmm, maybe I need to look into Fringe. My husband and I started GoT, but the first two episodes were so upsetting, he left the room! That's when I started reading the books instead.

  3. This is such an interesting post. I also never watched a lot of television.

    I did watch the remade Battlestar Galactica series. I thought that it was brilliant but that the second part of the final season went off the rails. I also was very disappointed by the ending.

    1. Right? That was NOT the conclusion I wanted for Starbuck, that's for sure.

  4. I think I will be getting a cheapy Netflix subscription this month also. I have never had one, which is odd, because I do enjoy TV, so you must wish me luck ;)

    Now, as for the shows, your concern is a HUGE issue for me too- about where the story is going, having a good end. You nailed it, because books DO have an end. But shows don't always get one! I used to watch this show with my mom, American Dreams. It was set in the 60s, and it was fabulous. And then one day, mid TONS of great storylines.... it was gone. It makes me not trust shows to EVER end appropriately, which is why it's such a hard medium to get invested in. Like, right now, I am obsessed with The 100. But I worry that it will end without closure, and frankly, I need closure!

    1. That is definitely one reason to wait until a show is over before starting to watch it--you can be sure it at least has An Ending, even if it's not The Greatest Ending. Definitely good luck with your Netflix; the kids use it the most, but we get enough out of it to be worth it.

  5. Ahhh I will rant about the finale of Lost with fellow disappointed Losties any day. I watched it when it was still on TV, so I hardly even remember it now, but I remember that they kept creating more and more questions until it finally felt like they were just making things up and just gave up on trying to make sense of anything, and the end was definitely a disappointment.

    I never thought about how weird commercials are when you put them into the context of books though lol. And I do hate the spread out thing. I have binge watched a few shows, and I'm a binge-reader of series, so I do prefer it that way, so much easier to remember everything!

    1. My friends used to make fun of me when we watched TV, because I couldn't disconnect for the commercials. They'd all be chatting, and I'd still be staring at the screen, transfixed but also complaining the whole time.

  6. I also hate books that have disappointing endings. Too much from left field, too trite, too UNresolved, too weak. It leaves me feeling that I have wasted my time; whereas when I am watching a netflix movie, I KNOW I am wasting my time! Remember, we had the same mother....


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