21 September 2020

TV Series I Don't Get Tired Of

Like favorite books, there are some tv series that I can watch over and over for the pleasure of hearing the familiar stories retold and revisiting beloved characters. Some of them are crime shows, all are genre fiction and its TV equivalent. Most of my favorite genres and subgenres in reading and viewing overlap.

British police procedurals
Books, a few author examples out of many: Reginald Hill, Deborah Crombie, Jane Casey
TV favorites: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis

American political drama
Books: American political novels tend to be thrillers, not my favorite genre, but I do love character-driven traditional mysteries that explore social issues and may have a law enforcement or related protagonist, such as a judge, journalist, clergyperson, or social service worker.
Author examples: Margaret Maron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Nevada Barr, and Dana Stabenow fall into this category
TV favorites: The West Wing, Madam Secretary

Historical and cross-genre with crime and fantasy fiction
Books, author examples: Diana Gabaldon, Laurie King, Jane Austen, Dorothy Dunnette
TV favorite: Outlander

Science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and cross-genre with crime fiction
Books, author examples: Charlaine Harris, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Naomi Novik
TV favorite: Star Trek Voyager

And what do I write myself? The same or similar categories, for the most part.

Character-driven traditional mysteries that touch on social issues (the Bruce Kohler Mysteries)
Historical literary, mystery, and crime fiction (the Mendoza Family Saga)
Urban fantasy with crime fiction (the Emerald Love series)
And a variety of all of those, including a few police procedurals, in my standalone short stories.
I also read, write, and watch some suspense, which probably covers whatever doesn't fit elsewhere. It's limited by the fact, quite awkward in a crime writer, that I don't like being scared.

What do I like about the TV shows I've mentioned? And what do I learn that helps me as a writer?

Inspector Morse
My appreciation of John Thaw as Morse and the way the TV show tells the stories are untainted by knowledge of the books, which I've never read. As a reader and thus as a writer, I demand at least one endearing character. In Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis we have two, both fully developed and engaged in a relationship that grows and changes over time. They complement each other as detectives and as personalities, both kindred spirits and polar opposites. We don't need violence or extreme language to become and remain absorbed in the action. The sparkling dialogue, the vivid minor characters, the use of setting as character, the twists and turns of each plot—this is how it's done.

I'm not usually tolerant of fictional chronic alcoholics who don't get sober—and come to appreciate sobriety, like my Bruce Kohler. Inspector Morse is the exception. Why do I give him a free pass? I suppose it's a testament to his charm, his intellect, and what I call in Bruce an "ill-concealed heart of gold." In Morse's case, he always falls unerringly for the wrong woman, and it's a much more endearing flaw than if his mistakes were a result of his drinking.

The other outstanding aspect of the series is the all-encompassing presence of Oxford as a character. On TV, much of the impact is visual, and its impressive architectural beauty is brilliantly photographed. But it's far more than that. The crimes are Oxford crimes. They involve intellect; the sense of entitlement, tradition, and hierarchy; and the peculiar insularity of the university as well as the rivalry and mistrust between town and gown. All this makes for a multilayered episode every time.

Inspector Lewis I've come to like the Lewis series, starring Kevin Whately, even better than Morse. Inspector Lewis is an engaging character whose defining characteristic is not a flaw but what Louise Penny would call his goodness. Like his former mentor Moss, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he reserves his rare moment of irascibility for hidebound colleagues and the occasional arrogant aristocrat.

Lewis's sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is the perfect foil. He's a Cambridge man and an ex-seminarian, ie the brainy one. Lewis's apprenticeship with Morse has left him with enough knowledge of Wagner, Latin, and bits of poetry to keep up. They're both terrific detectives who drive their boss, Superintendent Innocent, crazy with their irreverence toward Oxford and its shibboleths and gods. She accuses them of "chippy copper antics" at one point when they've been rocking the boat of some socially prominent crooks. Their delicious dialogue as they work a case is a model of clever buddy banter. Watching again recently, I wasn't sure if I heard Innocent call them a "dynamic duo" or "demonic duo."

And Oxford is still an essential and fascinating character. Far more than mere scenery or dreaming-spires ambiance, it has unique mores and a varied population that lends itself to crimes that could only happen in Oxford. I'd like to think my New York in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries has a hint of that quality.

It's hard to talk about The West Wing or Madam Secretary without getting political, since they're both fictional demonstrations of how to govern the United States with intelligence and integrity in an increasingly challenging global environment—and what a very complicated job it is. But the lesson for the storyteller's art, I think, is how brilliantly each of these shows deals with huge themes while engaging the viewer with the emotional life and dilemmas of very real individual people.

These shows are also great examples of "show, don't tell" intelligent characters. They absorb and share on demand vast quantities of crucial information on science, politics, economics, world cultures, and a host of other topics. They think on their feet to maintain collaborative strategies with colleagues, political opponents, and foreign ambassadors and heads of state; and to keep adversarial situations from getting out of hand, since "out of hand" could mean anything from a single death to World War III. And they don't do it by having the protagonist shoot the bad guy in the gun hand. Or via insipid dialogue and telling the viewer the characters all went to Harvard. They do it by being a very, very smart team created by a very smart writer.

Outlander is in a class of its own as a historical series that's true to the series of books it's based on while condensing the complicated story lines for relative brevity, clarity, and drama. It's also a case of perfect casting (Sam Heughan as Jamie and Catriona Balfe as Claire), especially impressive because Jamie Fraser is one of those characters about whom many, many readers have fantasies.
I don't think a writer can apply craft to produce that kind of memorability in a character, at least not to guarantee it. When I first read Outlander, the first book in the series, I was swept away to the 18th century and didn't come back till six hundred pages later. The TV show provides a similar immersion in the historical time in which it takes place. To say, "It's a time travel romance" is so misleading, because a book or TV series so described could so easily be shallow, cheesy, anachronistic in all its elements—the romance, the time travel, and the history. Outlander sets a tremendously high standard, and I think that's what it has to teach the writer. Do your research. Love your characters. Take your time. And keep it moving.

Star Trek Voyager is "my" Star Trek, the one with the woman captain—Kate Mulgrew as the redoubtable Captain Janeway—and I watch it not for the proto-iPads and phony science but for the people and their relationships. Talk about a locked room! a handful of people on a starship thrust suddenly into the Delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home. The lesson for me is that if you're most interested in the people, it doesn't matter what the backdrop is; you can always weave it in and make it serve the story. And remember that the story is always about people (of whatever species, not just about technology, however important a role technology plays.) Since I read much more urban fantasy than science fiction and don't write true SF at all, I'd have liked to include a Charlaine Harris screen adaptation on this list. I enjoyed True Blood, especially the first few seasons. But I'm unlikely to watch it all the way through again. Like the science in Star Trek, the gore and biting are incidental to the personalities and relationships of the humans, vampires, and shapeshifters, ie the people, for me. My very favorite Harris books, the Harper Connelly series, haven't made it to the screen. Harper's the one who can find the dead and tell you how they died. I haven't gotten tired of rereading those yet.


  1. Good morning, everyone. I'll be back later to see if others' favorites are the same as mine or differ greatly and why.

  2. Hey Liz. I do/did like a lot of those series, especially West Wing, Outlander, and ST Voyager. Along with Justified and Ozark and half a dozen others. I've always said we fiction writers can learn a lot from movies and TV (and I'd watch 'em even if we didn't).

    Interesting column!

  3. I can't imagine how anything, including wild horses, would stop you from watching movies, John. ;) I'm glad we have some TV faves in common, since our movie tastes are so dissimilar. TV is a great teacher of dialogue, suspense, and pace—also killing the darlings and cutting the cr**. Those writers don't dare waste a word, and we can all learn from them.

  4. My favorites are New Tricks (I never get tired of them), Star Trek Deep Space Nine (I fell in love with it for Odo, the shapeshifter who's worshipped as a god in his world, but is an atheist himself), Miss Marple (with Joan Hickson), and (with regard to historical mysteries) Cadfael and Dame Frevisse.

  5. Switching on Morse is strangely like slipping into a warm bath, for me. I can't help but feel immersed within its story line, only emerging when I hear those Morse Code notes begin the final theme music. The program "Lewis" doesn't do it for me, but the show "Endeavor" does. And I'd also tip my hat to New Tricks, which my wife and I call "Old Dogs" though we like it!

  6. I enjoyed "Voyager," but "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was my favorite, by far, of the series. When it comes to crime/mystery, my favorite TV show was the original "Law and Order." Still watch it occasionally.


  7. Haven't seen any of the shows you mention except "Star Trek: Voyager." That was the first "Star Trek" series I ever saw. Recently I've been rewatching "Psych" on Peacock & "Republic of Doyle" on Netflix for the first time. The father on "Republic of Doyle" has three grown children & it is interesting to see how he plays favorites ... he seems to dislike his youngest son, but goes behind his back to persuade the former girlfriend to give him another chance.

  8. Liz, in the British department, I have to go with Foyle's War where he is a criminal Inspector in an English village during WWII. Then, during the Cold War he becomes involved in working spy cases which rejuvenates the series and takes it in a new direction.

    Kiti and I loved The Republic of Doyle. The hard-headed father who ran the PI business, the PI son who couldn't manage a relationship with a female for very long and all the other broken characters, all while they tried to solve crimes. Although, the ending episode seemed a little rushed and not quite right as the writers tried to wrap up all the loose strings for a conclusion.

    Justified was an all time favorite of mine. Some of the episodes even had a basis on real crime, for instance the night time smuggler who jumped from a plane with a load of drugs on him, but his chute didn't open.

  9. Eve, you're not the first I've heard praise Joan Hickson over other Miss Marples. I know they're currently available, and I'll check them out. I'm very familiar with the books, but the only screen Miss Marple I remember—vividly and with relish—is Margaret Rutherford, which really gives my age away. Dixon, both Morse and Lewis are warm baths for me, and I must investigate New Tricks after hearing two yeas.

  10. Bob, I think everyone has a different favorite Star Trek. I've seen them all at least once all the way through (except the original, don't think I can park my inner feminist at the door). Voyager is "my" Star Trek; Next Generation is my husband's. Are you all watching Discovery and Picard on CBS All Access?

  11. Elizabeth and R.T., that's two votes for Republic of Doyle. I'll try it. Sometimes if a family seems too dysfunctional, I can't get immersed—I'll be jumping up and down yelling, "Get a good therapist—like me!" And yes, R.T., Foyle's War is superb.

  12. I'm a fan of almost any of the PBS Masterpiece Mysteries. Loved Justified. Bosch is very well done. The Wire is one of the best crime series ever written. Currently watching Season 2 of The Alienist. There are so many well-done crime shows.

  13. I agree, Bruce, though the latest, Van der Valk, is getting mixed reviews on DorothyL. Justified seems to be a general favorite. I've been looking to see where it's streaming. Amazon?

  14. I'd recommend the Danish series BORGEN, about the first woman prime minister of Denmark, and her public and private life and the lives of several people whose lives intersect with hers...MADAME SECRETARY is, I suspect, an unacknowledged US variation on it. I saw it on the little cable/satellite channel Link TV some years back; more recently it was picked up by the NYC-based broadcast and web channel All Arts and was visible for free...now Netflix has it, so more people will pay for the privilege (and have a dubbed option), as we wait for the fourth season. Favorite sf series from my childhood: THE PRISONER...favorite recently...hm...at the moment probably AVENUE 5. How do you feel about the fantasy series THE GOOD PLACE? And how did the RUMPOLE series grab you? (My favorite crime drama on broadcast might still be HOMICIDE...even THE WIRE only sporadically eclipses it.)

  15. The great thing about British television is their plethora of mysteries, detective, and crime shows. I watched the first few seasons of Endeavour, but haven't yet watched Lewis.

    I've been watching a couple of court dramas, an older series, The Brief, with Alan Davies and a newer one you might enjoy, Silk.

    STV is my second Star Trek choice following TNG. Follow-ups to either pale.

  16. Todd, I'll check out The Good Place. I love fantasy if it's the right fantasy. Leigh, I watched the first ep of Silk and wasn't drawn in. If you liked Morse, you're in for a treat with Lewis.

  17. Interesting, that I too like LEWIS even better than the original MORSE. A show I enjoyed immensely but that never got legs was THE CORONER. It only lasted two seasons, or "series," the Brits say. I think partly the setting, which was seaside Devon.

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