As a writer, I am always looking for something to watch, something that inspires me to write, whether it be a good movie, a good play or a good television series. Television has been my latest obsession. The three shows that have had the biggest influence on my writing have been the X-Files, Burn Notice and 24. All these shows had long runs on television because they had strong action packed story lines, they kept the viewer on the edge of their seat, the acting was impeccable, and all three of these shows revolutionized television in some way. They brought a fresh look to the TV Drama and a fresh look to Television as a whole. The change in the television drama began with…
“I want to Believe.”
The X-Files is the 90’s version of “The Twilight Zone”. The show revolved around aliens and the paranormal. It was the type of show that “Project Blue Book,” should have been. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are two FBI agents assigned to a department called the X-Files. The X-files are unsolved cases of a paranormal nature. Some of the cases involve extra terrestrial activities, some of the show revolves around some strange monster of the week and others revolve around Government cover ups. The stories, are crisp and sharp. The characters well-developed and the suspense kept me coming back for more. And best of all, the show had a villain you loved to hate, “The Smoking Man,” played splendidly by William B. Davis.
I always find some of the best villains, don’t say anything. They are just observing what’s going on, trying to determine how much the other character knows and if they are threat or not. It makes you wonder who the character is and what is going through their mind. After the Pilot, that’s exactly what I did wonder about this mysterious Smoking man, and why he was so interested in Fox Mulder. Toward the end of the pilot, Mulder and Scully come back from a case on ET abductions. Mulder wants to continue. The FBI doesn’t. Orders came from up top. Orders that perhaps the Smoking Man knows about. The last shot in the Pilot, we see the Smoking Man, with a lit cigarette in his mouth, carrying a box of evidence, that Mulder and Scully have retrieved from their investigation. He calmly walks down this long warehouse hall, we hear the sounds of his perfectly polished shoes, along the asphalt floor. He has the evidence in the box and enters a room, where he files it, never to be seen again. Now the Smoking man, never utters an entire line in the pilot, but you know, just by the way William B. Daniels plays the part, he is pivotal and you know you’re not going to like him.
Most episodes were stand alone episodes and you might think there wasn’t an arc, but Chris Carter never intended for the X-Files not to have an Arc. He brought it in at the beginning of a season and at least two to three episodes towards the end of a season. Usually it appeared in the last three episodes of the season with a giant cliffhanger. If you’ve never seen the X-files, here are some of my favorite episodes.
Blood, a monster of the week. The story is ingeniously crafted about a Pizza boy, who is suspected of being a blood sucking vampire. The episode doesn’t take itself seriously and each character has a different perspective on the story. The guest star in this is Chris Wilson, Owen Wilson’s brother.
Drive, about a guy, who hears some electronic sound wave in his head, which cause incredible migraines. In order to get any sort of relief, he and his wife(Suffering from the same affliction) must drive fast or he’ll die. Some guy named Bryan Cranston stars in this episode. Yeah that guy from Breaking Bad and Seinfeld. His acting in this is incredible. It’s almost as if this was an audition for breaking bad, because Vince Gilligan had a hand in this episode.
Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man. This tells the tale of the Smoking Man and how it all began for him. Watch the episode and you will see Chris Owens as a young Smoking Man. Chris later plays the Smoking Man’s son in the series. It’s an episode that humanizes our villain and you almost might find yourself feeling sorry for our chain-smoking nut. You’ll also feel sorry for our next protagonist in….
The series started out every week, with this opening narrative, which came from the pilot.
Michael Westen: [voice-over] My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy. Until…
voice on phone: [phone rings] We got a burn notice on you. You’re blacklisted.
Michael Westen: [voice-over] When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.
In this case, he was dumped in Miami Florida, not a bad place to be dumped, unless you happen to wake up with some c4 strapped to your chest, by your ex-girlfriend. Yes meet Michael’s ex, the lovely Fiona Glenanne an ex IRA terrorist with a love of c4. The previous scenario didn’t actually happen in the pilot. I just used it to illustrate one of the best female characters I’ve seen on television, Played by Gabrielle Anwar.
I caught this gem by accident. I was working on a play and I was flipping channels. I ended up on USA and I let it run. I was unsure what season or what episode it was. I wasn’t paying attention. I lost my train of thought and my attention turned to Burn Notice. Michael Westen’s narrative caught my attention. It lead into a segment on how to divert your enemies with a road block. I was fascinated and thought to myself, “Hey wait a minute, this is a how to on how to be a spy,” or in Michael Westen’s case, a spy turned Vigilante. It was something I’d never seen before and it worked. What set these narrative’s apart from any other’s I had seen, was when something went wrong, Westen had a quip. It broke the tension.
Throughout the series, Michael’s main goal is to find out why the CIA burned him and who was responsible. To make ends meet, he takes on clients. These aren’t your ordinary clients in trouble. These are clients threatened, by the mob, drug smugglers, terrorist groups and loan sharks. So in this series, Michael is pretty much dealing with the worst of the worst, but he’s dealt with them before in his CIA work. This is precisely why, Michael can help them. Many of these situations involve blackmail or the client is worried if the police find out what they are doing, they will be thrown in jail. Most of these cases are brought to him, by his team, his meddling Mother(Played with a great touch of humor by Sharon Gless) , or his brother Nate. Michael solves these problems vigilante style, using his spy tools. He’s lucky he has his former CIA friend Sam Ax (Played by Bruce Campbell) on the team, so he can run an idea by him.
It was a unique idea. I never looked to see if where the show stood in the Nielsen’s, but I liked it.
The format for each episode was interesting. The teaser, dealt with some intel Michael picked up or he was going to meet someone who had some intel that would lead to the person who burned him. Something bad usually went down at this point, or something unexpected. At the beginning of Act One they either solve the issue, retreat and come back to it, or Fi, or Sam bring him a client. As soon as the case is solved, Michael returns to his own obsession and some climax happens at the end, no one expected. Something not expected is the perfect explanation for….
24 on FOX, was created by Robert Cochrane and Joel Surnow. This show broke the ground rules for television, tossed them in the trash and then…re-wrote them. I had heard about this show and the phenomenon, but was never able to watch it. Then I found time and believe me I was glad I did. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The concept was brilliant. Take one hour out of a government agent’s day and see what happens. What happened was nothing short of mind-blowing. Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer an agent for CTU, the Counter Terrorist Unit. In the Pilot we find Jack at home having a quiet evening with his wife and rebellious daughter. Nina Myers, the second in command at CTU calls him back to work. Terrorists are planning to assassinate President Palmer. The clock is ticking. They must find out who these terrorists are and stop them. What started out as a quiet evening at home, becomes increasingly worse. The same terrorists planning to assassinate the President, kill Jack’s boss and kidnap his wife and daughter. That just gives you an idea of what this show is about. A whole day lasted a season. Most of what unfolded for Jack Bauer, was not good. He always ended up bringing the terrorists to justice, but it costs him his family, his own sense of self and even his sanity at times. By the time we get to the last season, Jack is filled with rage and the only person he can trust is a former CTU Commander, named Chloe, who has become a computer hacker. During the run of the show, Jack loses two wives, three girlfriends and he is betrayed by another. While trying to get deep undercover with a group of terrorists, he develops a heroin habit and becomes addicted. His relationship with his daughter is constantly tested, till he decides it’s safer to stay away from her all together.
Each week, you never knew what was going to happen. The CTU organization usually had a mole in it, or some power-hungry, inept guy took over. Jack was usually taken out of play.
Out of play became a very common catch phrase. It perfectly describes the show in a nutshell. It was as if you were watching a highly tactical chess match, not ever being able to figure out what Jack’s next move was, or the terrorists. Jack was in the center, with very little wiggle room. In some cases, he was a pawn. Each act was tense and had its own cliffhanger. You always second guessed yourself. If you thought you knew who the mole was, forget it, you didn’t. Just when you thought Jack, had stopped some terrorist attack, he didn’t. Just when you thought Jack had caught the terrorist, you found out that the person he really caught was a small fish in a larger governmental conspiracy. Just as you became close to one of the characters, they were killed off. I think Game of Thrones took a few ques from this show.
Intrigue, suspicion and action was not limited to CTU. Each season, Cochrane and Surnow, found a way to bring the White house into play. There was always something going on in the White House, that affected the story line and the country. The President was either threatened with assassination, trusted people who would try to usurp his power, or in some cases, the President was a villain. President Logan comes to mind.
This is the perfect show for a writer to watch. The writing was hard, crisp and quick. The character development is some of the best I’ve ever seen on TV. The pace of this show, moves at an electrifying pace and you’re never bored. I watched the entire series on the edge of my seat and didn’t even know I was doing it. One rainy weekend day, I watched ten episodes. Careful though, this show can be emotionally draining. It can also be extremely addicting. 24 goes down in my top ten list of greatest Television shows of all time.
I feel with these three shows, you can’t go wrong as an aspiring writer. Watch them and see if you can’t learn a thing or two from them. I know I took away some valuable lessons from these shows. If the Third Eye can meet the standard of these three shows, then I know I am moving in the right direction. I see a bright future for television. As more and more fresh shows are being created, more and more gifted writers are turning to television. That means the competition is going to be fierce, but I see that as a win for everyone in the end.