Over on Facebook, I've been making a load of comments about various TV shows, usually none too complimentary. It's not that I've been rude, it's more that much of what I've been watching hasn't really lit my fire, even when it comes to really popular shows like House or West Wing. Some readers seem to think that I'm simply not taking to American TV, but it's not that at all: I barely watched TV in the UK either for the last couple of years, so I've been catching up on various series on DVD to see what I've been missing, and mostly finding myself disappointed.
I don't like reality TV, I can't stand makeover shows, and I find most talk shows vapid. I really don't like comedy that's too close to my working life, so shows like The Office and the IT Crowd drive me crazy. I don't enjoy police procedurals, particularly not of the CSI vein, and I don't like medical dramas. I don't like gritty depressing reality, I avoid soaps like the plague, and I get bored by "monster of the week" supernaturals.
It's not that they're bad TV. Some shows of these types are really good, and I'm not for a moment denigrating them as a whole. But I've watched way too much TV, and now I'm bored by most of it, just as I'd finding it increasingly hard to find books I like or films that hold me riveted to the screen.
Anyway, one person eventually asked me the obvious question. What do I like?
That's actually a tricky one.
The only broadcast TV shows I've watched in the last year were Top Gear, Mock the Week and QI, and that surprises even me, as they're not really the sort of thing I normally watch.
I like to watch stories: drama, adventure, action, mystery, and intrigue. I like exotic or historical settings, larger than life flamboyant characters, and plots that stretch the imagination and the credulity. I like either a good long story told as a serial, or I like simple, snappy, self-contained episodes that you can pick up piecemeal, rather than "arc" programming where you sort of need to see the individual episodes in order or you can get mixed up. I like touches of humour in serious drama, and I like to be awed and amazed occasionally by both the breadth of the writer's vision and the visual richness. But most importantly, I like not being able to write the next line of the script or being able to predict the plot twists. I like to be surprised.
My tastes aren't defined by any particular genre. I like science fiction, for example: Firefly was superb, Dollhouse was really good, the first three seasons of Babylon 5 were brilliant, I loved the first two seasons of Battlestar, and the recent Sci-Fi channel Dune mini-series were outstanding. On the other hand, Star Trek doesn't do it for me, Farscape was so-so, and I think I grew out of Doctor Who when I was about 15. I can't just say "I like sci-fi". I'm picky. Very, very picky. (Or "selective", as I'd prefer to call it.)
Similarly, Deadwood was one of the most enjoyable series I can remember, but that doesn't mean I want to watch more Westerns. In historical programming, Rome was utterly compelling, (and so utterly different from I Clavdivs), I've watched every episode of Sharpe repeatedly, North and South was good, if dated, but Charles II was dull, and Blackbeard was utterly dreadful. (He was from Bristol, for crying out loud, what on earth possessed them to make him a Scot?) It doesn't have to be serious, either: Middlemen is wonderful cheesy fun, and Warehouse 13 is good, tongue in cheek adventure.
In a nutshell, I never know what I'm going to like, and I often find the shows I like best weren't the shows I expected to like.
I know as well as anyone that there's no such thing as a truly original story: all stories are reworkings of existing material, and there are certain conventions that we expect story-tellers to follow if they're going to produce a "satisfying" story. However, there is still scope for originality. I love genre-crossing - that's why I enjoyed Firefly so much, with its "cowboys in space" riff. I like genuinely unusual characters, not the usual "tired/rebellious/maverick cop with an incongruous taste for jazz/opera/blues", or the formulaic "buddy duo forced to work together who then become friends" (and if they're opposite sex, several seasons of will they, won't they). I'm really looking forward to No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I wish I'd seen more of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and I'm thoroughly enjoying watching Young Indiana Jones.
So, in short, my formula for TV success is this:
- Take me to a setting that takes me away from my everyday life;
- Show me characters that aren't cliched, even if they're stereotyped;
- Make me laugh, make me gasp, and surprise me, all in one episode;
- Give me sharp, tight writing, and;
- Either stay faithful to the source if that's what you're doing, or bring together elements that haven't been combined before.
Of course, that's no guarantee of commercial success. If it had been up to me, I'd have turned down most of the successful TV shows of the last 15 years. I'm aware that what I like isn't what you'd call mainstream entertainment.
But that's the beauty of the Net, and it's where machinima and other low-budget or zero-budget techniques really win. No TV company, especially in today's economic climate, can afford to take a chance, but amateurs can. I'm finding more and more that my entertainment needs are supplied by Web series and amateur movies such as The Mercury Men, and their production values are getting better and better.