How television is struggling—and often succeeding—at becoming a mature literary form
It's become commonplace lately to talk about the serial television show as the novelistic medium of the 21st century—The Wire as a modern-day Dickens novel, Mad Men our Cheever, Friday Night Lights our Steinbeck. One could continue down the line, with Lost as our Michael Crichton and Desperate Housewives our Jacqueline Susann, but the lowbrow serial has been entrenched for decades now; it's the higher-quality stuff that's new. Whereas feature films were always limited in comparison to literary novels by their brief and rigorous story arcs, TV is free, theoretically at least, to use a broad canvas and unfold over tens or even hundreds of hours of screen time. The medium has been held back only by its historical lack of niche venues for challenging but well-financed work and its reliance on advertising for revenue. From the turn of the century on, thanks to a fortuitous array of new technologies and market forces, TV showrunners have finally been set loose to try to match in light and sound what their 20th-century literary heroes wrought in ink and paper.
Their success has been remarkable. Over the 15 years since the debut of The Sopranos on HBO, in the categories essential to any narrative medium's claim to broad cultural relevance—holding up a mirror to society, conveying characters' internal lives with depth and integrity, achieving new expressive styles that reflect the consciousness and felt reality of the time—TV has, quite suddenly and alarmingly, arrived. Critics and audiences have followed. Consider: the birth of the TV recap as a critical form, Salman Rushdie's 2011 interview with the Observer (UK) wherein he announced his move to TV and equated the work of a showrunner with that of a novelist, the Hemingway-esque stature of showrunners like The Wire's David Simon in the media, and the increasing space given over to television in highbrow publications like the New York Review of Books. If, ten years from today, Simon were to win a Nobel Prize for Literature for his "visual novel," the cultural prestige thereby conferred on creators of high-end television would scarcely be greater than what we've witnessed in the past decade dating from The Wire's debut in 2002.
By now, perhaps, the time has come to close the book on the question of whether a great TV serial can be the equal of a great novel and to open a discussion of whether it ought to be. The troubling fact remains that TV shows are not like books. By the time a reader sets eyes on the first sentence of a novel, the novelist has not only already written the ending but has also revised that first sentence many times to better plot the way towards resolution. On the other hand, Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, by Academy consensus the best drama on TV throughout its run, admitted in a 2011 interview with Grantland that an ending for the series didn't occur to him until the middle of the fourth season, halfway through the show's arc. If you're one of the millions of people who look to the narratives of Mad Men as a touchstone to think about your own life and the world around you, consider this: You've been watching a first draft. Our preeminent storytellers in this new, TV-dominated era are, quite literally, making it up as they go along.
Weiner can't be blamed for his approach. The modern-day TV showrunner is locked in an improvisatory dance with studio executives and producers to keep the money flowing. If problems arise with a cast member, be it death, professional differences, or a public outpouring of tiger blood, the trajectory of the narrative must be radically altered. Week-to-week ratings are the primary measure of success and the lifeblood of the show; these are typically increased by introducing exciting new conflicts or buzz-worthy displays of action, flesh, or gore. Resolution is of necessity a secondary priority, often deferred.
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This flaw at the heart of serial storytelling is catalogued by Heather Havrilesky in her New York Times Magazine rant "Clues That Lead To More Clues That Lead To Nothing." In Havrilesky's extended metaphor, lazy serial TV writers treat viewers like lab rats addicted to "mystery pellets," eager to run any maze just to find the next one, regardless of substance or meaning or even a way out of the labyrinth. Havrilesky goes too easy on the top tier of showrunners, though. Every TV show, even the best, has its smoke monsters, its unresolved and discarded storylines, its foreshadowings papered over when the plot went a different way. (The Wire is perhaps an exception because of its unique and self-limiting structure of single-season arcs.) These shows are not visual novels, nor are they 50-hour films. They're an entirely different kind of animal, infinitely more reactive and spontaneous, that has learned to imitate novels, to ape novelistic virtues, to give a hint of an expansive vision or definitive statement that isn't really there. Often through outright allusion to literary forbearers, these shows labor to create an atmosphere of "novelishness," but in the end the mirror is held by an illusionist. Smoke gets in your eyes.