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.