Friday, January 11, 2019

Indie Spotlight: Watch TV Like an Author - Jennifer Spiegel

Jennifer Spiegel is no stranger to TNBBC. In fact, she may actually be the most frequent author contributor here on the blog, for which we are incredibly appreciative. 

Back in November, she self published her novel  And So We Die, Having First Slept. And today she's here sharing an essay on how much she digs.... TV.....

Watching TV Like A Writer*

I love TV.

I may need to justify my TV habit, my love affair, which it is. Nightly, when the kids are down, my husband and I—shamelessly—make our way to the big, brown couch in front of the big screen. He brings over his ubiquitous bowl of Frosted Shredded Wheat and raisins (why, oh, why did I fail to invest in raisins?). Sometimes I wear my purple socks with paw prints on the bottom for traction. We call our stinky dog into the room. And then, then, for one hour only, we watch TV.

 It just seems so—I don’t know—gauche?

I’m going to tell you a little story. It’s embarrassing.

I grew up with parents who watched Primetime TV. Like every night. My skinny-ass dad pulled out this black goblet from the kitchen cupboard, filled it with ice cream, and settled in for a night with my mom, miscellaneous pets, and the Idiot Box. Reading this now, I’m like, Oh No. I turned into my parents.

As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get my nouveau-independent, brie-eating, book-reading self out of there, straight into the halls of Academia, where I could get on with the scholarly life. Always a dork, I didn’t dream of being a supermodel. I dreamt of Nabokov, Roth, Brontë. While I never stopped shaving and I never joined a Kill-Your-Television Hate Group, I did ban most TV-watching for years, making exceptions here and there.

But, by the new millennium, single-womaned out, I succumbed. There was a brief, dark time in which I watched “The Bachelor”—alone, in my thirties, with my now-dead cats, prior to hitting up e-harmony with a fake name (Jennifer Jacaranda). I had thought I was done with self-inflicted psychosis when I had stopped binging-and-purging in the nineties, but apparently not. I got a grip—though months had passed—and I turned it off, with a kiss-my-ass swivel and a clash-bang-boom.

Screw That Reality TV!

TV-tainted, I swore I’d never relapse again.

The rest of that decade is a hazy blur. I know that, somehow or other, I got married to another hater, had kids, read a book by Donna Tartt (seriously, this is all I remember), saw one doctor about removing varicose veins but didn’t follow up, and began—not without a measure of indignity—watching “Lost” with my husband.

But the crazy part is that TV seemed okay now, even among us faux-intellectuals. No one was ashamed anymore. TV was cool. Forty was the new thirty, and TV was the new novel? Getting old wasn’t that bad. Was there a TV Renaissance happening? Were we on the brink, with “Lost,” of Literary TV?

There I was, all highfalutin about character development (Sawyer and his heart of gold) and the combo of a backstory (I don’t remember it) with a current story (the Others!), along with the beauty of this story confinement in terms of time and place, et al.

Well, this tale ends badly, I’m afraid.

As you know, “Lost” went south with its craven ending (and the Smoke Monster). I still can’t talk about it. That grand finale—rife with McGuffins, a Deus ex Machina or two, and red herrings galore—killed me, like, religiously. Part of me died. I mean, by now, I was already in the throes of pretending I was a real writer—and I wanted “Lost” to work. I wanted it so badly. I wanted narrative success, not unlike a sinner craving redemption. With each show’s offering of clues and with climactic tension building, my hopes were high. My disbelief was so suspended that I was utterly convinced in the Dharma Initiative and All. But that conclusion was so unbearably lousy, so disappointing, so theoretically unsound, that I turned off the television for another couple of years. My hands still stained with the sin of Bad TV, I was in need of cleansing (not to be dramatic or anything). The TV stayed off.

Till the Renaissance was in full-swing.

And that was when the TV was declared a source of marital together-time, a discussion piece, a happy ritual. However, I needed it to somehow benefit my writing too. I then started my Big Project: Watching TV Like A Writer.

We discovered gold in the Renaissance. “The Office” was a gift. We only began watching when it was over.

And now a crash-course in what I look for . . .

Veracity/Emotional Truth: I am ever-conscious of authenticity. It’s a literary habit, yeah?

It was the appeal of “The Office.” The absurdity of the real. The side glances. The cast of nuts in our lives. The ordinary setting. The I Am A Nut Too-ness of it. The “Breaking of the Fourth Wall,” if done in a particular way, draws our attention to what is and isn’t real, to artifice. When Michael (or Leslie in “Parks and Recreation”) addresses the audience, the audience is asked to be active, not passive, to note the absurdity of the moment, to see it for what it is.

But it can be even larger than that. It can speak of the human experience. I might turn to “Better Call Saul” because I am perpetually blown away by strange human ministrations in the scenarios. It’s a quiet show, you know? One just watches Jimmy live out a breathtaking humanity that almost embarrasses the viewer with its scrutiny but also evokes empathy. It speaks to what it means to be human.

I often think of certain odd moments in “Saul.” One thing I really love about that show is how it will dwell in the moment. It will linger. TV (and other mediums) often doesn’t let the individual moment sink in before racing onto the next, maybe more exciting, moment. “Saul” savors such times, and I think writers might learn much about the ravishing or devastating or colorful effect of minutia. Watch this scene. There are many, many others like it. “Saul” dwells. Should writers do the same?

Character Development: This is really hard for TV, I think. It’s a plot-centric medium, yeah? Built to be an After-Dinner Drink, following the long, hard day. Characters on TV, for the most part, have always been stable. Reliable. We could count on Lucy to be Lucy. (Laverne to be Laverne!) Which is why we might make a case that there’s a TV Renaissance going on. Characters have the potential to develop as at least some shows get novelistic. Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” goes into therapy, and it affects his behavior. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” transforms over the course of several years, making the phrase breaking bad meaningful. The direction of the plot hinges on character development.

(Side note: This is why I’m done with “The Walking Dead.” Rick gone, protagonist no longer on any kind of character-trajectory: The show is dead to me.)

The Good Detail: This, too, is maybe novel in television, because formulaic recipes have proven so successful. But how great is it that the family unit in “Breaking Bad” consists of a high school chemistry teacher, a pretty unlikeable mom, and a kid with cerebral palsy? How great is it that Jimmy’s brother in “Better Call Saul” is cra-cra and demands that cellphones are put in the mailbox? These are great not because of the eye-popping weirdness, but because they’re not formulaic and they’re painfully true. That’s the stuff of my life, your life. We’re the chemistry teachers, the ones with the crazy brother (or maybe we are the crazy brother).

Production Values That Are Probably Equivalent to Language: Well, yes. I listen for dialogue. But there are other kinds of language. I’m thinking of Nina Simone at the end of the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or the use of the color red in the show. I’m thinking of the stylized settings and clothes from “Mad Men,” “Peaky Blinders” maybe (watch this!), and even early “Walking Dead.” I think, personally, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the best in making a beautiful language out of its production values. Ouch--this is so great. I find it utterly chilling, nearly perfect.

Bad Guys: They need to be fully human, right? Tony Soprano and Walter White were bad guys who were also good guys. Remember Tony’s weird soft-spot for animals? Sometimes, there are great bad guys roaming the sets of so-so shows. I loved Boyd Crowder on “Justified.” (That show was a fave, though I’m not totally sure I can make a big case for it.) “Ozark,” a newbie, seems to have a great mix of complex characters.

Endings: I’m possibly over-sensitive about endings. I have a thing for closure. There is little I like better that a seven-year commitment to a television show with resolution at the end (this is hyperbole.) Resolution can be in different forms. I’ll try to avoid spoilers. There are two kinds of satisfying endings.

First, the This-Is-The-Way-It-Goes end of “Breaking Bad,” which was close to flawlessness. What true thing will follow these other true things? That is the lovely path of “Breaking Bad.” A variation of this kind of end is the Hate-It-Love-It End of “The Sopranos,” which requires the viewer to ponder the inevitable. That show ended with the lingering presence of the Inevitable.

Second, there is the metaphoric, Somehow-This-Totally-Works End. “Mad Men” did it. It’s right. It’s philosophic, symbolic. It’s probably—because everything is—a little Great Gatsby, even if no one rides off into the sunset like I was hoping they would. Another winner here was “Six Feet Under,” which you know we’re still thinking about . . .

I guess I would say that I’m in constant lookout mode for the satisfying end. I’m a student of ends. I don’t know if other writer-types feel as strongly about this as I do. For me, the value of the story may just depend on the end. I say that, and I’m sure that I can think of a ton of exceptions. Still, I always marvel at the effective ending. (“Seinfeld” bugged me; “St. Elsewhere,” a formative show in my early life, robbed itself of veracity.)

The Perfect Show is probably “Better Call Saul.”

Though “The Handmaid’s Tale” might be another kind of perfect: stylized writing—think about how George Saunders is real, but not real.

Watching TV Like A Writer means that school is never out. There is no such thing as downtime. I’m not all snob. I do or did “Downton Abbey,” “Call the Midwife,” “This is Us,”” The Americans,” and “Orphan Black.” I feel like I demand a lot from my narratives. Happily, my demands are often met.  


Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. She teaches college classes and writes. She is the author of three books: THE FREAK CHRONICLES (Dzanc Books), LOVE SLAVE (Unbridled Books), and AND SO WE DIE, HAVING FIRST SLEPT (November 2018, Five Oaks Press). Spiegel is also half of the book-reviewing team, Snotty Literati. She lives with her husband and two kids in Arizona. Please visit her at

* Some of this appeared in a slightly different form in an essay I wrote on “The Walking Dead” in Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies.

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