'Girls,' 'Mad Men,' and the Future of TV-as-Literature

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.

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.

Into this breaking dawn of TV-as-literature wanders Lena Dunham. Concerned with the adventures of a protagonist just embarking on adulthood and craving experience of any sort as grist for her artistic ambition, Dunham's show Girls enters the literary imagination less as a wannabe novel than as a half-finished book of essays, a memoir written uncomfortably soon. New York's Emily Nussbaum adroitly describes it as "a show about life lived as a rough draft." Dunham, for one, is not afraid to admit that she's making it up as she goes along.

Louis C.K. and Larry David are available precedents for Dunham's autobiographical style, and she has acknowledged C.K.'s influence. C.K., however, is a different brand of showrunner from those discussed above--his roots are in stand-up, a jazz-like, improvisatory art, and in his show he's happy to carry on the thin artifice of a man under bright lights charged with entertaining you. Dunham is after something different, fuller and more dramatic.

Dunham grew up in the era of great TV and embraces its literary possibilities—subtle character writing, high production value, and big themes. But she lacks the chip on her shoulder that has defined the last decade of high-end TV, as showrunners have struggled to achieve respect alongside novelists and feature film directors. She was 14 when A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came out, and she studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Oberlin in an era when Anne Carson and Roberto Bolaño commanded the utmost literary cachet. It's only natural that she should have different literary pretensions than Weiner, Simon, and others of their generation, who still remember the towering figures of Hemingway and Mailer, or that she should see opportunity in the very limitations of serial storytelling that her predecessors are so eager to hide.

Dunham is likely aware of an emerging canon, championed by critic David Shields, of semi-novels and lyric essays that mix personal narrative and artifice, relying on reality, not fictional conceit, as the prime leavening agent. Her own feature film debut, Tiny Furniture, featuring Dunham's mother and friends acting out scenarios dangerously close to their own lives, fits nicely in this category. In his book Reality Hunger, Shields writes: "The books that most interest me sit on a frontier between genres. On one level, they confront the real world directly; on another level, they mediate and shape the world, as novels do... What I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported."

A problem with Shields's vision for a literary movement, however, is that it's not ideally suited to either books or films, which are so static in form. Television is perhaps a better fit. On TV, for example, a memoir can never be written too soon, because it can always just go on and on as the writer lurches into adulthood.

The sense watching Girls is of Dunham as a kid playing with this incredible new toy—an HBO show—and seeing what it's capable of. Every episode or two, the viewer gets the stomach-drop feeling that she's somehow learning how to fly this thing that we thought up until now was a car. That feeling is, one hopes, a glimpse of the future, a sense of what television-as-literature could turn out to be. It may not look like the great narrative works of the 20th century. It might feel messier, more contingent on the world outside the box, which shapes the onscreen narrative in unpredictable ways. The authorial voice may feel less, well, authoritative, less able to pass judgment—because, after all, this is a story being lived more or less in the moment of its telling. But it will also be exhilarating, because it will mean that high-end television is no longer trying to measure up to the achievements of other media. It's learning how to be itself.