Television: The Most Visible Storytelling Medium

I think TV should get more credit as an art form. Not only do the writers, cast and crew have to tell a story quickly, they have to do so for a large chunk of the year, and if they’re on a hit show, several years of their lives are lived on screen. It bothers me when people critique a show after only a few episodes without giving it a chance to find itself, because TV is the only visual medium, globally speaking, that has to form itself while we’re watching.

In theatre, the cast rehearses for several weeks, slowly sinking into their characters, taking time to find all the little quirks of movement and personality, pushing through the awkwardness to create chemistry between the characters. When we see the final product, it’s the best it’s going to be without a live audience. It’s a finished product though the audience can effect some changes. Whether we like it or not, it’s a complete work of art.

In film, actors get a chance to read a script prior to filming. They sometimes have several months to train, work in a dialect, and discover a character through research. Except in extra features, we never see the process (and seeing it at the end is not the same as seeing the film come together). Again, we may be indifferent, hate it, or love it, but it’s a one time performance.

Television, however, is different. Even though an actor may get a script of the pilot prior to the show’s beginning, they rarely get scripts enough ahead of time to do a lot of prep. Television actors need to stay on their feet, jumping from one character to the next between shows or in the case of shows like Dollhouse and Fringe, during the run of the show.

The writers of a television show may have a “show bible” but there are rarely scripts neatly stacked up ready to be shot. Most writer’s rooms are busy every week attempting to break a story even better than last week’s. And since they need to make an impression in the first few episodes in order to retain viewers, they’re a little more willing to be experimental with the storylines and characters.

This means that when you watch a pilot, you are not watching a finished product. You are watching someone thinking. Someone trying something out, considering things from a different angle. They haven’t found their footing yet. This story has just begun to live.

Some actors have trouble adjusting to a new character and take four or five episodes to really grasp it. When this happens, we can see the progression from ideas to concrete beliefs about the character. This adds to the inconsistency of the character along with the writing up front.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, either. I think TV is the most fascinating of visual storytelling mediums partially for this reason. If we get caught up in a show, we’re given the opportunity to grow along with it, evolve with it, over however many seasons or episodes it gets.

When we see a play or a film, we’re presented with solidified thoughts and have to choose whether to reject them or not, but in television, we’re given the ability to be fluid, to take in the ebb and flow of the writers’ and actors’ processes. It’s a more intimate form of storytelling in that way.

People working in television should get more recognition, not only for being brave in allowing us to see them find their way, but for the stamina it takes to tell these stories. The cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” used to call it “Buffy the Weekend Slayer” because they spent five or six days a week filming and then recuperated during the weekend only to do another episode the next week. For seven seasons.

Seeing a television show evolve also means that when a show is canceled it tends to cause more pain, at least publicly since it is shared by more people. Sometimes the potential has just become visible or more people have started exploring the story, and to be brought up short when there is more story to tell is like being cut off from a world you were just beginning to call home.

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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  • I never thought it about that way, but you’re right – movies are more like singular, carefully-refined pieces of art, while TV is the ever-evolving and progressing art form. It takes more time and dedication, and has the potential for much more emotional impact (both positively with well-evolving stories and negatively with abruptly-ended ones). Great thoughts!