The Elements of Quality Television

I’m constantly being asked for TV recommendations. “What’s the best show on TV? What’s good?” These aren’t easy questions to answer, and they’re never going to have straightforward responses. Of course everyone has his or her own beliefs on what makes a show “good.”  Ask a room full of people what the best show on TV is and I doubt that anyone will have the same answer.

But, because talking about TV is kind of what I do, I’ve created a checklist of sorts, that includes the elements that I think most quality television has.

A good show must have:

  • At least one intelligent woman. – Ok, maybe it’s a little feminist to put this first on the list. Maybe I want to be a little feminist. I think it’s extremely important that shows represent life. That’s what TV’s doing, after all. It’s giving us a look into someone else’s life. So it should be realistic in some regards. There are intelligent women in the real world, so there better be intelligent women in television. Even if the show is carried primarily by men, and the woman isn’t a main character, she better be there. Sherlock has Mrs. Hudson, Molly Hooper, Sally Donovan, and Irene Adler. It can be done. 
  • A diverse cast that doesn’t strictly adhere to stereotypes. – This point is a lot like the first one. Real life is diverse. We aren’t all white males. Let’s make sure our TV isn’t like that. And adding a gay man who only exists to be a gay best friend stereotype doesn’t count.
  • Interesting, multi-faceted characters. – Characters need to have many aspects to their personalities. People aren’t black and white. Everything is some kind of strange gray area. Game of Thrones does this really well. Cersei Lannister is sneaky and out for power, but she also loves her children with an undying passion that most parents can probably relate to. Jaime Lannister might push children out of windows, but he’s clever and has a stubbornness that appeals to viewers. Characters need to have negatives and positives, and truly great characters are able to recognize their own shortcomings and learn to live with them. Tyrion Lannister is the perfect example.
  • The ability to be comedic. – Think of all the times that you laugh, just in one day. In one hour even. Sometimes life is funny, even when it shouldn’t be. I’ve never been able to watch a show that doesn’t capture the humor in life. It’s not believable on a basic, human level.
  • The ability to be dramatic. – Of course a show has to know when to be serious. A good example is the episode of New Girl where Nick Miller’s dad died. The show impressively balanced laughter with tears, and it was all very believable in the context of the show, with the possible exception of Jess’ Elvis impersonation. Breaking Bad is one that’s completely mastered drama. When Walter White explains that he’s “the one who knocks,” no one’s laughing, and no one should be.
  • Intelligent, engaging plot lines. – This one kind of goes without saying.
  • Subtle character development. – Characters need to evolve slowly and realistically. Usually you can’t pinpoint exactly when a character changed, and that’s the way it should be. They need to be shaped by other characters as well as the storyline. If a character never changes, life isn’t being realistically represented. Mad Men is the best at this. Sometimes the character development is so slight that you think it isn’t happening, but when you look back a few seasons, you see that most characters are completely different.
  • Continuity. – Again, this is just common sense. Things need to fit together. Even if the show is centered around cases, character quirks and interests need to show continuity.
  • Good dialogue. – This is another one that almost goes without saying. However, it is a bit more complicated. Let’s look at The Big Bang Theory as an example. The dialogue discusses some very intelligent topics, but that doesn’t mean the dialogue itself is smart. The dialogue needs to include the viewer. It needs to show that the characters have a firm understanding of what they’re talking about. Or, if they’re not supposed to understand, a firm sense of confusion. Dialogue needs to be said because it’s part of the story or it’s furthering a relationship, or even because it’s offering comic relief. It doesn’t need to be said just so show runners can pat themselves on the back for including long words.
  • Believability – This doesn’t that characters can’t be over the top. It doesn’t mean that story lines have to be grounded. My favorite show ever is LOST. I’m ok with ridiculous. I want to be clear that this means that things need to be believable within the context of the show. So while time travel might not be believable in the real world, it works on LOST.

And that’s it! Well, that’s not it, but it’s a pretty good start. Honestly, I think that if a show has all of these elements covered, it’s probably pretty damn good. Obviously there are exceptions. I think The Walking Dead has everything mentioned above, but I still have issues calling it a good show. We can talk about that some other time. In the end, quality is completely subjective, but I think this list is a start.

As for shows that I think are good, recommendations, if you will, I’ve mentioned a few in the post already, but here’s a list in case you need something to watch. I’ve tried to include a decent amount of variety.

  • Mad Men
  • LOST
  • Game of Thrones
  • Community
  • Modern Family
  • Sherlock
  • New Girl
  • Parenthood
  • Breaking Bad
  • Firefly
  • Doctor Who

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