It’s a rare thing for me to find television that compels me to watch no matter what. Most that comes along I can watch or not. I’ll enjoy it if I do, but I feel no real loss if I don’t. For me, I find that shows fall into two primary categories, character or plot driven. I’ll watch shows that have interesting characters, even if the plot is on the weak side. A good example of this is Brothers and Sisters. It has very well-written characters, but I don’t find the family drama plot material to be overly compelling. I have no real interest however, in plot driven shows that don’t offer great characters. I think, regardless of the media format, character always wins over plot. I can’t even think of a show that had intriguing plot premise but weak characterization that I have watched with any regularity.
So, assuming there are great characters to watch, I find that there are three basic types of plot driven shows. There’s the episodic show that runs a through a complete story with every episode, and has very little over-arching plot development. I generally don’t have much interest in these. I can take them or leave them. Next is the episodic show that has a series of larger plot lines. These shows are usually of the type that have some kind of bigger plot that gets brought up every few episodes. What I find is that I only really like the show when this bigger story is in the mix. A good example is The Mentalist and it’s ongoing “Red John” story line or X-Files and it’s conspiracy plot. Finally, there’s the show that is basically one big story. Each episode lays out a bit more of a larger plot that expands, reveals, and leaves you curious every week what happens next. You put in compelling character development to go along with it, and you have a show I can’t not watch.
Lost was just such a show. Great characters that developed and changed over time, and an intriguing, mysterious plot that slowly unfolded over several seasons (never mind that the ending was a bit of a let down). My current show is Fringe (and until I had to cancel Showtime, Dexter), but I discovered a series recently, thanks to Netflix, that I have been compelled to watch, pretty much without stopping. I’ve watched about 60 episodes over the past six days, and can’t believe I never caught on to it while it was on. That show is Prisonbreak, which ran from ’05-08′. I’m almost glad I didn’t watch it then because having to wait week to week for it would have been torture. As a writer, it’s a fabulous example of character and how to keep those pages turning. I’ve never watched a show that so intensely upped/changed the stakes. I believe the writer’s driving force in plotting the show was to give the various main characters a desire/reason to do something and then figure out what the worst thing could be to have happen in order to thwart it. I swear, something happens every five minutes to screw up what the characters have planned. It is the best cliffhanger show I have ever watched. Period. On top of that, they have done an excellent job of making a lot of the villainous characters sympathetic. Any time you can write a “bad guy” and make them sympathetic to the reader, you’ve done your job. Villains who are in that gray area between good and evil are really intriguing.
I could go on about other elements in the show, but I don’t need to. If you write, I’d suggest watching this series. It has some of the best examples of how to do things (if you write in a similar genre at least) in a way that compels the viewer to keep watching or in the case of books, to keep reading. And this is a very important ability to have. Readers will forgive a fair number of flaws if you compelled them to keep reading through the book until done. Just watch it. Trust me, it’s that good.
Happy reading/writing everyone!