Ciao, SEers. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of movies are being remade and television shows are being brought back after years of being off the air. It made me wonder if these reboots are because the adage is true: every story has already been told.
Flip through the channels at night and you’ll find DIY shows, reality TV, educational programming, news, sports, melodrama, action, and sitcoms. And most of these are not well done. I have hundreds of stations, yet little appeals to me. You’d think there would be a better selection, but there’s not. As such, when I’m too eye-weary to read, I often find myself watching reruns of old shows now in syndication. Which made me think about another adage: oldie but goodie.
Do I like these shows because of nostalgia, or are they actually better?
I’m not going to answer that question. I don’t know if I can answer it, but I feel like I shouldn’t even if I can.
Instead, I want to discuss a few ways fiction has changed over the years by analyzing an old(er) television show, then go over the things we can learn by studying it.
(I know there’s a difference between screenwriting and novel writing, but for the purposes of this discussion, the differences won’t matter.)
Changes Over the Years
I’ve recently been watching Barney Miller at night. It aired on ABC from January 23, 1975, to May 20, 1982. (Yes, I referred to it as older even though it premiered more than forty years ago. Forty isn’t that long.) I enjoy the banter, which is why I’m awake at midnight to watch two episodes. But after doing a little research, this is what really strikes me:
In a 2005 op-ed for the New York Times, real-life New York police detective Lucas Miller wrote:
Real cops are not usually fans of cop shows. […] Many police officers maintain that the most realistic police show in the history of television was the sitcom Barney Miller, […] The action was mostly off screen, the squad room the only set, and the guys were a motley bunch of character actors who were in no danger of being picked for the N.Y.P.D. pin-up calendar. But they worked hard, made jokes, got hurt and answered to their straight-man commander. For real detectives, most of the action does happen off screen, and we spend a lot of time back in the squad room writing reports about it. Like Barney Miller’s squad, we crack jokes at one another, at the cases that come in, and at the crazy suspect locked in the holding cell six feet from the new guy’s desk. Life really is more like Barney Miller than NYPD Blue, but our jokes aren’t nearly as funny.
I am impressed that the squad room is (almost) the only set. There are early episodes where we visit Barney’s apartment, and a few where we go to Fish’s home. I remember one at Chano’s place after he shot someone, another at Wojo’s when he was considering living with a former prostitute. There was also a hospital scene when a new detective was shot, a jail scene when Barney was held for contempt, an offsite witness protection scene with Harris and Dietrich, and an empty apartment scene when the guys were on a stakeout. That’s really not a lot of alternative settings for eight seasons, particularly when you consider these other sets weren’t used often.
These days, cop shows (comedy or drama) have squad room scenes, but the majority of each episode is spent in the community. We see far less character interplay and far more action sequences. The mystery takes precedence over the day-to-day bureaucracy of cop life.
Which is better? I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for in a story.
Personally, I prefer character-driven fiction, so I prefer the Barney Miller approach. Friends and Seinfeld were shows about “regular” people doing “normal” things, and they were incredibly successful. Barney Miller has the same feel to it. We don’t see the shootouts or the investigative legwork. We don’t see bomb disposal or victim discovery. We see paperwork, water cooler chat. Sarcastic quips between the detectives or between them and their suspects. As far as “regular” and “normal” goes, Barney Miller was ahead of its time.
It was also ahead of its time with respect to cast diversity. They really tried for a representative sampling of society. Barney was Jewish; Dietrich was agnostic (maybe atheist, I’m not sure). Wojo was Polish (and Catholic); Harris was black. Nick was Japanese; Chano was Puerto Rican. Fish and Luger were old; Levitt was short and complained about height-discrimination. There were also recurring female detectives and a gay officer.
Maybe I don’t watch the same shows as you, but it seems to me it was a long time after Barney Miller ended before we once again saw an ensemble cast who were so ethnically, religiously, and sexually diverse. (I’m not sure there was one before it, either.)
What Authors Can Learn from This
These days, there’s a strong market for action. And I enjoy action. I’ve written action. But why can’t we have both action and character interplay? I posit the following:
- Stories can occur in only one setting and still be interesting.
- Character interaction in that setting is “action” enough.
- Relationships outside of that subset don’t need to be explored. That means explicit sex isn’t necessary. (I am a romance writer and I can admit that—provided a passionate scene isn’t something your audience expects. For example, a steamy romance has to have it. A sweet romance shouldn’t.) There was an episode where Wojo and a female detective were undercover at a hotel. What they did on their personal time was implied, but not shown, and the story still worked.
- Violence isn’t necessary in police-centric stories.
- Real life, even the tedious parts, don’t have to be boring.
I don’t know if I could write a novel set in only one room. It might be fun to try if I ever have the time. (And now I’m laughing.) But these are great points to consider for a short story, where subplots and secondary characters are kept to a minimum.
I admit, I like older television shows. There’s something about the simplicity and purity of them that today’s shows don’t possess. At least, not the ones I watch. That said, there are modern programs that entertain me because of the strength of story and the compelling characters, so please don’t think I’m dismissing contemporary television out of hand.
I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a favorite older show? A can’t-miss contemporary one? What do you look for in fiction these days—character interplay or fast-paced plots? Sound off below.