Category Archives: Television

Literary TV?: How Friday Night Lights can make you emotionally smarter

You may have read about a study published in the journal Science last month. It showed that after reading “literary fiction” for just a few minutes, people scored higher on tests of emotional sensitivity than those who’d read popular fiction or straight nonfiction.

The reason, the study’s helmers explained, is that literary fiction leaves more to the imagination than other types of writing. Therefore, it prompts readers “to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

The high-brow Lit world rejoiced. Here was justification for why literary authors such as Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich and Wendell Berry (some of the writers used in the study) really were more worth reading than bestselling genre authors such as Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher or Robert Heinlein.

The study got me wondering whether quality TV could accomplish the same kind of emotional smartening. I wondered this in particular about the now-defunct series Friday Night Lights, headed by writer Jason Katims. I’ve been watching and adoring the show on Netflix Instant.


Ostensibly, Friday Night Lights (FNL) follows a high school football team that has become the locus of an entire Texas town’s hopes and dreams. Yet the playing of football receives barely a few minutes of screen time per episode. Mostly, the show is interested in the personal lives of its characters: the ways they honor and betray each other and themselves.

Episode for episode, this show has engaged and moved me more than just about any literary novel I’ve read in the past year. Give me those Science exams! Because when I’m done watching FNL, I feel like I’d ace them. I’m more compassionate toward family and friends. I’m more emotionally honest in my own writing, more willing to dig deep into my characters’ inner lives. It’s not just FNL that has this effect. Mad Men, Freaks & Geeks and Six Feet Under do, too.

So what gives? FNL ain’t Don DeLillo. In many ways, it’s the opposite of much literary fiction. Its episodes follow a conventional setup-climax-epiphany structure. There is darkness, but little or no cynicism. And because it’s a drama about working class people, often with low levels of educational attainment, the dialogue is simple. There are no beautifully wrought sentences or bedazzling inner monologues.

But I think the common thread between quality TV and literary fiction is that each is willing to sit with ambiguity. When characters on FNL argue — and they do argue, often — each character in the scene makes valid points. No one is ever completely right, and no one is ever completely wrong. Contrast this with the typical crime procedural, where there is one truth. The detective or lawyer uncovers that truth while the criminal lies.

Also, the endings of the episodes — like literary novels — are open-ended. No crime is solved, no case decided, no romance tidily consummated. Lives become more complicated, not less. The trade-off, for the character and the viewer, is that those lives also become richer, more compassionate, more interconnected.

The best TV may be able to depict ambiguity even more efficiently than novels. That’s because TV doesn’t have to describe characters’ emotions: It can simply present them, leaving viewers to infer what’s going on behind the facade. And unlike movies, TV doesn’t have to wrap everything up after only 90 minutes. Shows go on year after year, evolving at a pace similar to real life.

One way in which FNL is exactly like literary novels? It was never a popular favorite. Its best year-end ranking in the Nielsen ratings was #114. This is also consistent with the Science study, in which subjects said they got more out of literary novels — but enjoyed reading non-literary ones more.

We’re not always in the mood to grow, it turns out. Sometimes we just want answers.

What about you? Which TV shows make you feel emotionally smarter? –Justin


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The Power of Reversal

As Christine and I have been writing the Munchen episodes, we’ve been doing some thinking about the storytelling concept of “reversal.”

Reversals are a key element of creating tension in narrative fiction. This has been the gospel going back to Aristotle, who wrote about dramatic reversals in his Poetics. (There’s a pretty good book that applies his ideas to contemporary wordcraft.)

What exactly is a reversal, and what does it accomplish?


Aristotle says it’s “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite.” And you can see how entertainment uses this all the time. Oh, it looks like the football team is going to lose! But they win. Or the prosecuting attorney is going to trounce the defense! Only she flubs. In a longer piece, there may be many reversals back and forth. Triumph, defeat, bigger triumph, bigger defeat. Some movies or books (The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense) have a huge third-act twist — a type of mega-reversal that’s become almost cliché.

Reversal is even embedded in the very idea of storytelling “arc.” Protagonist starts out the story wanting one thing. By the end, she discovers she needed another all along.

That’s a Big Reversal across a whole movie or TV episode or novel. But then there are Small Reversals within scenes themselves. A couple starts out a scene on a fun date, but a few minutes later they’re fighting. A boss seems to be in control of his employee at the beginning of a scene — but by the end, the employee has taken charge.

The Script Lab has a nice list of classic movie reversal scenes. For example, there’s the one in The Silence of the Lambs where Clarice interviews Hannibal. She arrives thinking she’s in control, but it turns out Mr. Skin Eater is.

A lot of writers in Hollywood say every scene — every one! — should have a reversal of some kind.

So why are reversals so effective? I’m thinking two main reasons:

  • They keep the audience on its toes, building suspense, because outcomes are unpredictable
  • They engage us emotionally, making us think either “oh no!” (negative reversal) or “oh yay!” (positive reversal)

I think that second one’s the biggie. Daily life is full of reversals. We think we’re going to get a phone call but we don’t. We think we’re finished with a work project but we aren’t. We think we’re doing our significant other a great kindness and it makes them mad. So the reversal reflects our daily experience of life.

It’s easy to say, “ah, this reversal thing is so lowbrow. Literary novels, or quality movies or plays, don’t need reversals.” But I was at a talk by literary novelist and essayist Ann Hood where she talked about her writing process. When she’s revising, she reviews each of her scenes and puts a “+” or “-” at the beginning to reflect the emotional state of the protagonist. Then she makes sure that each scene ends on the opposite sign. It’s hardly ever a Usual Suspects-style huge moment. It’s usually more subtle. But there needs to be a change.

Hood never once used the term “reversal” — but she said the “+/-” practice has amped up the emotional response readers have to her work. And that greater response has led to bigger sales and a more engaged following. –Justin

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