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On My Screen: Film and Television Insights For Storytellers

From standing in line to see E.T. when I was five years old to the latest binge-worthy series, movies and TV have been constant companions throughout my life.

Yes, reading thousands of books helped to make me an excellent storyteller, and considering that Sterling & Stone has published several hundred, of course I love novels. But the unique ability of film and television to convey complex narratives in hours rather than days positions them as unparalleled vehicles for absorbing stories at a modern pace (so long as you’re not fucking with your phone while watching them).

In a world where productivity gets regularly measured by visible output, my considerable TV watching habit might seem indulgent. Yet, this visual and narrative feast is far from a mere pastime. For me, and for many storytellers, watching shit is a rich source of professional development and cognitive exercise.

Every character journey and unexpected plot twist refines my understanding of storytelling and stimulates my thoughts, challenging me to think differently and more deeply about the world around me.

I come up with a new story idea every day as a ritual, and many of those concepts are born the night before while I’m sitting on the couch in front of that bottled blue glow.

Here are a baker’s dozen of examples: 

  • Mad Men offers deep insights into the evolution of marketing and advertising, showcasing the power of creativity amid the complexities of personal and professional life in the 1960s. It also has Don Draper, my favorite TV character of all time.
  • Succession is a masterclass in power dynamics, family business struggles, and the art of negotiation and leadership within a corporate empire. It’s also a Shakespearean tapestry of betrayal and ambition, where the cutthroat game of thrones in a media dynasty makes King Lear’s family squabbles look like a benign board game night.
  • Good Will Hunting highlights the importance of emotional intelligence, self-discovery, and overcoming personal barriers to unlock one’s full potential. I saw this on my second date with Cindy, and it is still in my top ten of all time.
  • Breaking Bad shows the consequences of choices and the transformation of a character driven by desperation to innovation, albeit in a criminal context, masterfully distilling the volatile reaction between morality and ambition as Walter White goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface.
  • The Social Network chronicles the birth of Facebook, emphasizing innovation, entrepreneurship, and the complexities of founding a startup in Zuckerberg’s dizzying ascent from Harvard dorm room idea to global phenomenon (or cancer, depending on how you feel about Meta), encapsulating the essence of ambition and the double-edged sword of success.
  • Billions delves into the high stakes world of finance, offering lessons on risk management, ambition, and the gray areas of morality in business as the show pits intellect against ego in the gladiatorial arena of Wall Street.
  • Moneyball (my son’s favorite film) uses baseball to explore themes of innovation, the value of data analytics, and challenging traditional thinking as it challenges the sacred cows of America’s pastime with a story that’s less about baseball and more about the game-changing power of thinking differently.
  • Fargo (the show and movie) explores the complexities of human nature, morality, and the consequences of one’s actions within the framework of crime and mystery, weaving a chilling narrative that blurs the lines between right and wrong.
  • The Sopranos pulls back the curtain on mob life to reveal the intricate balance between power and vulnerability, offering lessons in leadership, loyalty, and the psychological complexities of life at the top of a criminal empire, while teaching us that power’s allure often comes with a price too steep for the soul to pay. Truly groundbreaking television, this show gave us the prime time antihero, kicking the door open for future Drapers and Whites.
  • Station Eleven (my daughter’s favorite book) highlights the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of art in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, underscoring the importance of hope, connection, and storytelling in rebuilding communities to paint a post-apocalyptic world with strokes of hope and humanity.
  • Steve Jobs offers a look into the mind of Apple’s co-founder, exploring innovation, leadership, and the complexities of visionary thinking, showing us that behind every technological breakthrough lies a trail of personal sacrifices and the relentless pursuit of a vision that others can’t see.
  • The Great (Bonnie’s favorite) is an “occasionally true story” exploring the rise of Catherine the Great with a blend of historical facts and satirical fiction, illustrating themes of power, ambition, and the quest for change. This show humorously punctures the bubble of historical reverence to reveal the timeless dance of ambition and power, suggesting that history is not just written by the victors but also by those daring enough to rewrite the rules.
  • The Bear delivers a gritty look at the high-pressure world of restaurant kitchens, with themes of leadership, teamwork, and pursuit of excellence amid personal and professional challenges for a dish of raw ambition.

My passion for the written word is undeniable. Yet, the distinct capacity of film and television as storytelling vehicles — to unravel intricate tales within mere hours — stands unmatched.

Each Saturday, I’ll be exploring one movie or show, and the impact that piece of art has had on me, starting with the pilot for Mad Men, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, next week.