Television. Not film, as much, but television. I’m a writer who watches television far more than I read books. That’s not to say I neglect books – according to my Goodreads reading challenge I’m only one book behind on my yearly goal of 75 books read for the year. No, I read. I have to if I want to write. It’s just that (and I’m admitting this publicly for the first time here) I manifestly enjoy watching television more than reading books.
There, I said it.
Of late, those shows are Westworld, The Exorcist, and American Horror Story, but have covered a wide range in the past six years. My love affair with exceptionally written television shows began with The Sopranos some seven years ago. Without a long, self-pitiful explanation, let’s just say that by the summer of 2008 my circumstances were dire in nearly every way a person’s circumstances can become so. And worse, I had no means of distracting myself, as far as entertainment was concerned. No phone, no cable, no internet. I did have books and pen and paper, but that was less helpful than you might think.
Being a writer, books, pen, and paper (no working computer, either) felt more like work than leisure. I needed distraction, not work. And, though I loved it, making sentences had been work for a long time. I did have a DVD player and a television, though, but very few movies or shows to watch. At around this time, a friend of mine visited to check in with me. I shared my sad story and he offered to loan me all the seasons of The Sopranos, saying surely this would give me plenty of hours of entertainment.
He was right. Beyond right. In fact, The Sopranos actually saved my life, both personally and professionally. A general schedule for the entirety of my daily life during this time was as follows:
10 a.m. til 11 p.m. – Wake. Go to the living room. Push play to begin where I left off with The Sopranos.
11 p.m. til 10 a.m. – Sleep.
The above is not an exaggeration. It could help to mention that I was also frightfully unemployed at this time and had absolutely no job prospects (leading to a host of other torturous problems such as defaulting mortgage payments and car payments, the beginnings of my alcoholism, etc.). The only interruption during those daily thirteen hours of viewing was to occasionally drive out for cigarettes and a quick something to eat from the gas station, when I could afford it.
This routine saved me personally by simply giving me something to look forward to, and, of course, the distraction I desperately needed. As for my professional life, my life as a writer, I was once again inspired to create stories. The Sopranos reminded me of how enjoyable and fulfilling writing a story could be, and did so by giving me a near perfect example of exactly how to do it. In the few weeks following my Soprano marathon, I wrote the stories that would make up my first collection The Same Terrible Storm. Four of those stories remain the best writing I’ve done in all my 29 years of working this craft.
You’ll thank me for sparing you the comprehensive run-down of how The Sopranos is a perfectly written television show, a narrative built in the tradition of a brick cigar house. I would get lost in my reverie and you would stop reading. It’s enough to say that it is perfect.
To my amazement, I’ve come across many other television shows since then that are just as good. Breaking Bad, Fringe, Lie to Me, American Horror Story, just to name a few. I’ll finish by listing two of the most recent television shows that blow my mind (despite having both been based on movies from the 1970s and those based on books written during the same decade) and urge you to watch them as soon as possible. Simply lay that book down for a short time and give these a try. They find places in narrative that exceed the original stories, no small accomplishment by any standard.
New HBO series. Also available on Hulu. Based on the 1973 science fiction film of the same name. Starring, most significantly, Sir Anthony Hopkins.
New Fox series. Also available on Hulu. Based, of course, on another 1973 film of the same name and arguably one of the best horror movies ever made. Starring, most significantly, Geena Davis.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a novelist, short story writer, editor, and columnist. He is the author of three books – the collections The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012), Where Alligators Sleep(Foxhead Books, 2014), and the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). In 2012, he was a finalist for both the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award and the Still Fiction Award. The Same Terrible Storm was nominated for the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Excellence in Appalachian Writing, while his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best of the Web, and cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler and Stuart Dybek, respectively. Other writing has appeared in the anthologies Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (Bottom Dog Press, 2010), Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2015), and Larry Fessenden’s Sudden Storm: A Wendigo Reader (Fiddleblack, 2016). He is the past founder and editor of four literary journals and is currently the founding editor of the online flash fiction journal The Airgonaut.
I’m with you. Its a lot easier to watch television than read a book. I guess my imagination is not as good as what Hollywood can put on television. When I read I prefer to read nonfiction though. Do you end up feeling that way?
It’s strange because I feel like I have a healthy imagination and all. I write fiction and read fiction and enjoy doing both, but lately my interests are veering toward TV and film. I’m not sure why but I’m embracing it!