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Democratic and demanding
February 27, 2014 10:50 PM   Subscribe

Are the New ‘Golden Age’ TV Shows the New Novels? (NYT)
Since the debut of The Sopranos in 1999, we have been living, so we are regularly informed, in a “golden age” of television. And over the last few years, it’s become common to hear variations on the idea that quality cable TV shows are the new novels [e.g. "Cable TV is the New Novel"]... Clearly, the comparison is intended to honor TV, by associating it with the prestige and complexity that traditionally belong to literature. But at the same time, it is covertly a form of aggression against literature, suggesting that novels have ceded their role to a younger, more popular, more dynamic art form. Mixed feelings about literature — the desire to annex its virtues while simultaneously belittling them — are typical of our culture today, which doesn’t know quite how to deal with an art form, like the novel, that is both democratic and demanding.
posted by stbalbach (71 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man, if I could find a novel that reads like the Sopranos... I guess Jonathon Franzen sorta comes close, but the Sopranos is the *perfect* description of pre-2008 American middle class culture.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:58 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]


I mean, the books are still here and being written and being read, but how have novel-reading rates changed among the populace since the midcentury TV coup d'etat of the entertainment world? In other words, are discerning TV watchers simply watching better shows?

Television is more capacious. Episode after episode, and season after season, a serial drama can uncoil for dozens of hours before reaching its end. Along the way, its characters and plot have room to develop, to change course, to congeal. In its near limitlessness, TV rivals the novel.

Try telling that to the producers who handle the set, costume, and location budgets of, say, the average epic fantasy novel series. Hell, the biggest TV fantasy series in recent memory has vast swaths of its source novels' elements not shown. And that's not even the whole series yet.

Actually, that brings up a good comparison -- TV makes dramatizations of literature and occasionally does it well. Novelizations of TV shows are almost uniformly *never* literature of any sort of quality. The former has to cut mercilessly to fit itself onto the screen, while the latter could (yes) limitlessly fill in the tube's blanks.

Sufis tell of two paths to transcendence: One is to look out at the universe and see yourself, the other is to look within yourself and see the universe. Their destinations may converge, but television and the novel travel in opposite directions.

Goodness gracious, how precious.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:09 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]


I think yes, but not because of their form, but because of their function. Great TV shows have become the cultural reference points of discourse. People are less likely to use an analogy to Dickens in conversation than they are to compare a thing to the time Tony got food poisoning as he's realizing that Pussy was a rat.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:11 PM on February 27 [8 favorites]


Actually, I'll invoke Betteridge's Law and answer the headline, "No."
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:12 PM on February 27 [15 favorites]


I actually have huge internal arguments while watching movies or TV vs. reading books ( or comics) about how best to tell a story or make a joke in that specific medium.

Like I was trying to adapt a scrapped comic novel to prose and I could. Not. Translate. The tone from pictures and words to just words.
posted by The Whelk at 11:26 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


The preposterous over-hyping of the rather silly "Breaking Bad" did nothing to eliminate the artistic and cultural significance of film, let alone the novel, except maybe in the eyes of marketers. Sorry.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:38 PM on February 27 [7 favorites]


when TV shows start organizing themselves like good novels (ie: plotted with a beginning-middle-end which is determined by the writer/s before an audience is involved, not determined by advertisers and/or networks' buy-in), then I'll start to take the TV series as novel idea seriously. And I do hope to. I think the Netflix model is getting close. But it still feels hung up on not messing with the proverbial golden goose (ie: not killing off popular characters and other market-pleasing concerns), whereas truly great novels tend to let their own gravity and momentum guide them.

If Moby Dick were being written today as a TV series, Ahab would never die. Not until the dog end of Season 7 anyway.
posted by philip-random at 12:01 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


So like True Detective then, philip-random?

I think the author of the piece tries to have it both ways in a couple instances. For example
Televised evil, for instance, almost always takes melodramatic form: Our anti-heroes are mobsters, meth dealers or terrorists. But this has nothing to do with the way we encounter evil in real life, which is why a character like Gilbert Osmond, in “The Portrait of a Lady,” is more chilling in his bullying egotism than Tony Soprano with all his stranglings and shootings.
It's true that televised evil usually takes melodramatic form. But I think it's also true that written evil usually takes melodramatic form. You can't use one example of non-melodramatic evil to make the point he's making. Or I just point to The Wire (which he brings up in the piece, of course) and say he's wrong. There are certainly more examples in the written word than in the televised story but that's largely because there are orders of magnitudes more novels than there are television shows. It's not clear to me that the fraction of each is different.

My guess is that Kirsch is primarily considering only certain classes of novel when making his broad generalizations. But most novels written and most novels sold are more like Twilight than like what Kirsch undoubtedly usually reads.

I do agree with him here:
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful for our good TV shows; but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they give us what only literature can.
But I'm not sure he'd agree with the just-as-true corollary, which is that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that novels give us what only television can. They're quite different in much the same way that live theater is different than a novel is different than a film.
posted by Justinian at 12:22 AM on February 28


I'm guessing you didn't watch House of Cards Season 2 yet, either, eh p-r?
posted by Justinian at 12:22 AM on February 28


Sorry but TV is still basically junk food. There are cognitive reasons to believe why this is the case. The idea that it is somehow comparable with the act of reading a book, it should not even be on the table. And I say this as a lover of junk food.
posted by polymodus at 12:35 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


I'm guessing you didn't watch House of Cards Season 2 yet, either, eh p-r?

I haven't seen any of True Detective yet, and I'm slowly picking my way through House of Cards Season 2. So ... it sounds like I've got some gravity to look forward to. Good. And like I said, I think the Netflix model is already very close.
posted by philip-random at 12:42 AM on February 28


Do you fancy sharing any of those reasons, Polymodus?
posted by ominous_paws at 12:56 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


We've got top men working on that right now, ominous_paws.
posted by Justinian at 1:23 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


I actually have huge internal arguments while watching movies or TV vs. reading books ( or comics) about how best to tell a story or make a joke in that specific medium.

...

posted by The Whelk


People surprised by this, show of hands. Anybody? Didn't think so.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:49 AM on February 28


Sorry but TV is still basically junk food. There are cognitive reasons to believe why this is the case.
Do you also believe this of movies? If not, how are they cognitively different?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:50 AM on February 28 [5 favorites]


I really don't know what to say about this article. Part of me vehemently disagrees with it and another part is struggling to figure out what the writer is trying to say. "Television was so bad for so long, it’s no surprise that the arrival of good television has caused the culture to lose its head a bit." Then he brings up "The Sopranos", which began in 1999. Is he saying that before then TV was bad? I'm sure there are examples before the 2000's, and surely in the 90's, of TV shows that started down the path that we are at now. Seinfeld, a sitcom, had complex development arcs that spanned multiple seasons without having a large coherent storyline. There are plenty of other examples. I've also never heard anyone compare television shows to novels until now, and one article from 2012 doesn't make a trend.

The only comparisons to a novel I can find are social ones. When the Breaking Bad series finale happened me and a group of friends went to a bar to watch it with a lot of other people. When it was over we all got to talk about our reactions and everything throughout the series, with each other and other people. You can do that with a novel for sure, just like you can ask if someone has read a novel and they can answer no, just as much as you can ask if someone has watched Mad Men and they can answer no. However, I can't sit at a bar with my friends and a bunch of strangers, have all of us simultaneously read the final chapter together, and then proceed to go ape shit over it. I know there are book clubs, but this is different.
posted by gucci mane at 1:56 AM on February 28


when TV shows start organizing themselves like good novels (ie: plotted with a beginning-middle-end which is determined by the writer/s before an audience is involved, not determined by advertisers and/or networks' buy-in), then I'll start to take the TV series as novel idea seriously.

By this logic, most of Dickens's work is excluded from being "good novels". As are The Count of Monte Cristo, All Quiet On The Western Front, and Madame Bovary. The image of the novelist as auteur beholden only to artistic vision is largely anachronistic.
posted by kagredon at 2:31 AM on February 28 [10 favorites]


The preposterous over-hyping of the rather silly "Breaking Bad" did nothing to eliminate the artistic and cultural significance of film, let alone the novel, except maybe in the eyes of marketers. Sorry.

I'm buying what you're selling not because i agree that TV isn't an art form on the same level as film, but because i was really tired of that show being overhyped as the best thing evar. It was good, and it might have even been the first seriously good show a lot of people in my generation had seen. But there's people who put it in a list above a lot of good films, or even like six feet under or the sopranos. And uh... no. It definitely gets way oversold.

Sorry but TV is still basically junk food. There are cognitive reasons to believe why this is the case. The idea that it is somehow comparable with the act of reading a book, it should not even be on the table. And I say this as a lover of junk food.

I am so incredibly tired of this argument. Like, show your work. Because it's something i hear a lot from people(including my librarian partner) and it honestly strikes me as a kind of weird, almost vaguely classist thing coming from some place that Reading a Proper Novel means you're literate and requires a certain amount of thought, reflection, and education. Whereas any knuckle dragging pleb can go to redbox and pop a movie in their playstation and zone out while they eat a KFC bucket.

You are not interacting with either medium. You're sitting there and passively consuming it and zoning in(not so much zoning out, but into the media to the detriment of all else around you).

I absolutely think reading is a wonderful thing, but it bugs me when people who agree on that point also want to trash other visual media as somehow "inferior".

It reminds me a lot of the stodgy old person arguments on how electronic music isn't really music "because there's no instruments". It's weak, and if truly analyzed makes you sound like some mixture of an elitist and a luddite.
posted by emptythought at 3:14 AM on February 28 [35 favorites]


Is there a browser extension to strip all my feeds of headlines posing vapid questions?
posted by panaceanot at 3:16 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


As analogous to 19th-century serialized novels, he does have a point. Time will tell if these tv writers are by and large as good as Melville or James at the art of writing, but the long-form TV drama has certainly taken the same space in popular culture.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:18 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Novelizations of TV shows are almost uniformly *never* literature of any sort of quality.

British crime writer David Hewson seems to have done well with his novelisations of The Killing I, II and III (the original Danish series). "One of the most engrossing detective novels I’ve read in a long time," said The Telegraph's reviewer of the first.
posted by rory at 3:24 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Neverwhere is technically a novelization.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:34 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


You are not interacting with either medium. You're sitting there and passively consuming it and zoning in(not so much zoning out, but into the media to the detriment of all else around you).

No, they're different.
posted by rory at 4:00 AM on February 28


No, they're different.

Certainly a website full of cherry-picked pull quotes and graphs from popular science journalism on mostly decades-old studies from when television delivered distinctly different content, run by White Dot: The International TV-Free Conmunity is an impartial and agenda-free source of information on this subject.
posted by griphus at 4:11 AM on February 28 [20 favorites]


Can there really be any argument? The novel is a quintessentially 19th century art form. Rarefaction and etiolation have followed, some of it highly interesting, but in the main, as a broad vehicle for narrative delivery, it's dépassé.

Long live the new flesh!
posted by Wolof at 4:21 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


It's a bit odd that "novels" are somehow seen as True Culture. Plays and poems dominated culture for thousands of years. Homer and Shakespeare didn't write novels, novels only really took off in the 18th century. TV and novels are both relatively recent technology-driven innovations.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:44 AM on February 28 [18 favorites]


Certainly a website full of ...

Yeah, okay, I didn't spend a ton of time examining the link, I was just searching for graphs of brainwaves while reading versus watching TV. But people have been writing about TV and brainwaves for almost as long as there's been electroencephalography - it seems pretty firmly established that there is a difference in how our brains engage with reading versus TV viewing. (What to make of that is a different matter; I like reading and watching TV, whatever they're doing to my brainwaves.)
posted by rory at 4:53 AM on February 28


I am sort of rewatching BSG and I'm struck by how many good things there were about that series -- until RDM apparently wrote himself into a corner. I remember the podcast for BSG he was going on and on about how he was stuck on the ending and then had some stupid vision of a bird trying to get out. And he convinced himself that it was some inspiration and thus we got the stupid flashbacks.

BSG had a lot going for it, but they kept thinking that they were going to be canceled, and so you got brilliance in form of the mutiny and total shite like Hera's picture/Starbucks piano song/ghost father.

And with a novel you would just go back and rewrite that stuff. Is my point.
posted by angrycat at 5:07 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


...it seems pretty firmly established that there is a difference in how our brains engage with reading versus TV viewing...

I'm not a neuroscientist, but wouldn't the content and level of engagement with the content be a pretty important variable in both reading and TV viewing?

There's a whole lot of high school students out there who read the words on the pages of Moby Dick and left it at that. How does engaged, critical viewing of Good Television stand up to unengaged, uncritical reading of capital-l Literature?
posted by griphus at 5:09 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


The classic great novels of Victorian England (Austen, Elliot, etc) were derided as popular fluff that rotted the mind. There's a great editorial cartoon from the period that I saw once, subtitled "The Final Chapter" and depicting a woman kneeling next to a fire, using it for the light to read the last few pages of her book.

The high art/low art distinction is such horse pucky.
posted by kavasa at 5:10 AM on February 28 [13 favorites]


How does engaged, critical viewing of Good Television stand up to unengaged, uncritical reading of capital-l Literature?

Why should that be the comparison, though? Surely we'd learn more from comparing

- unengaged, uncritical viewing of Good Television versus unengaged, uncritical reading of capital-l Literature

- engaged, critical viewing of Good Television versus engaged, critical reading of capital-l Literature

Otherwise all we might find is that critical engagement is better than its lack, rather than whether TV or reading is better for critical engagement.

Maybe we don't even need the "good" and "capital-L" qualifiers. What if reading anything is in some respects preferable to watching any equivalent TV thing? Or the other way round?

I'm sure people have researched all of this, although I can imagine it would be tricky to set up suitable experiments; TV and film adaptations of novels are inherently different from their source material, just because they attach their own visuals to something that we would visualise differently. I can't imagine many straightforward TV/movie equivalents of comparing reading a book with listening to its unabridged audiobook.
posted by rory at 5:28 AM on February 28


Since the debut of “The Sopranos” in 1999, we have been living, so we are regularly informed, in a “golden age” of television.

How can I take this seriously when he spells "Freaks and Geeks" wrong in the very first paragraph?
posted by escabeche at 5:33 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


Relatedly, I am not sure what's happened with the supposed HBOizations I've read about of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers, and Karen Russell's Swamplandia, though I do know they have given up on Franzen's The Corrections (which was the wrong Franzen book for them to tackle anyhow).

Meantime there are so many great novels on my to-read shelves I despair at getting to them all in my lifetime - particularly if I keep watching these series from Netflix and HBO.
posted by aught at 5:34 AM on February 28


Meantime there are so many great novels on my to-read shelves I despair at getting to them all in my lifetime

"I buy books like I'm expecting to live till the age of 1000 in a world with no Internet." - Graham Linehan
posted by rory at 5:40 AM on February 28 [14 favorites]


This is a profoundly silly question, in my personal opinion, that almost nobody who knows anything about television cares about. The idea that the culture is broadly out there claiming that television is the new novel, supported by a link to one dude writing in the Chronicle Of Higher Education? Try again. In my experience, the idea that everything has to be compared to novels in order to be good is a thing people fret over when they are processing their insecurities about the future of books, not a thing people think when they are being excited about the future of television.

Furthermore, no, television shows aren't novels, and novels aren't television, but if you're going to take up that debate, you at least have to sound like you watch ANY television, which Kirsch does not. I mean, maybe he does watch television, but if he does, you can't tell, since he doesn't talk about any except in the vaguest, least familiar sense. And if he doesn't, the fact that he participated in this discussion is pretty ridiculous.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:50 AM on February 28 [5 favorites]


You are not interacting with either medium. You're sitting there and passively consuming it and zoning in (not so much zoning out, but into the media to the detriment of all else around you).

Maybe you're thinking of the wrong books. Come back and try to make that equivalence after reading Pynchon's Against the Day, or even David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (the original book, not the unnecessarily sausage-grindered movie version).
posted by aught at 5:53 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I think it’s funny that Adam Kirsch, the defender of “literature” over television, is such a sloppy writer. As Justinian points out, he cherry-picks a character from Henry James to argue that television is inferior because its depictions of evil almost always take melodramatic form while novels capture the way we encounter evil in real life. He does this just after he’s explained to us that his paradigmatic example of a novelist, Charles Dickens, was influenced by the stage melodramas of his day.

He also claims that good TV shows can’t give us what only literature can, which is voice, tone, the sense of the author’s mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images. That might be true if we were still watching silent movies, but in fact it’s exactly the opposite of the truth: television uses both language and images, and it’s novels that can’t give the images only visual media deliver.

In general, defining literature in a way that doesn’t include televised drama is tendentious, and doesn’t seem to do anything useful except to allow Kirsch to make the ridiculous claim that comparing television shows to novels is a form of aggression against literature.
posted by layceepee at 5:54 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


I dig a story arc for a show. But I don't dig that every show now has to have a serialized story arc. There's a major difference. In a book, characters grow and change over the course of the book. Some authors change out the main characters over several books. Some kill off semi-seemingly important people at weird intervals. With the exceptions of Game of Thrones and The Following (and a few other very rare occasions) - if it is an important character, chances are the character will make it to the end of the season. TV only allows characters to really be killed off at the end of the season as a cliffhanger. If every book paced its self the same such that you knew 'oh - I'm 50 pages (last episode of the season) from the end - someone's gonna die' you'd be bored. And that's what TV has become. They've taken long story arcs and made them so unbelievably predictable. Within 10 minutes of starting episodes generally enough information has been provided to be able to tell who the bad guy is, likely which major character is going to get injured, and you have a general plot overview in your head. The only time that there isn't sufficient information is when it is specifically withheld for a Scooby-Doo style episode. That's excluding the fact that everybody has to show you 2 minutes of previews and four articles of speculation about what the next episode will be about (generally 20 seconds of previews at the end of the episode, and then a released preview in commercials / what have you) over the course of the week. Surprise is over.

I mean - come on... Game of Thrones... people video taped friends who watched Red Wedding without having read the books... Its nice to finally see how it was visualized, but - its in a book. The spoilers were written there, and we're a culture now built on spoilers unless they take a couple hundred pages of reading.

We're now in an age where books can have hundreds of characters, but a core set of characters has to survive an increasingly unrealistic set of experiences week after week without having any sort of catharsis unless it involves flashbacks - and they get over them to return back to the same people. I mean... Every Team member in NCIS should have had a mental breakdown at least once or twice by now. Need proof? Watch the first episode of survivor and oh maybe 5 from the end of survivor and tell me everybody in the last episode is playing with an even keel comparative to where they start. That's excluding the fact that people should have been posting out of 'The Office' left and right, management should have fired a mess of them (yes they did deal with these issues in their show - providing us unplausible but wacky reasons why this didn't happen), and ultimately the show should have reverted to a six-sigma utopia of average performance. Where the loose cannons are identified and eliminated.

And story arcs seemingly have to exist in everything now. Bones, Dracula, Hawaii Five-O, Agents of SHIELD - even New Girl and Raising Hope. To a certain degree shows are all 'you can't miss an episode' anymore. Watch 5 random episodes of the original Star Trek or The Dukes of Hazard, and - with the exception of some character replacements - you'd be hard pressed to put them in chronological order. (Well - not the die hard Star Trek fans, but... come on!)

I'm not saying no character development is a good thing - but pick whether you are going to have no character development or whether your going to have it. Don't hold onto the sacred cows of a shows stars. If you want to be gritty, kill off your main characters like they are Starks. SNL may not be at its peak, but they change out the cast regularly, change top billing by how well critics and fans react, and otherwise keep a show somewhat fresh. If you want to be a sitcom - be a sitom... Laverne and Shirley never seem to learn, but they still - to this day are pretty awesome to watch.

Sometimes we'll have an occasional episode of 'this character has been traumatized' and we'll get an episode or two where the character is truly different or in a truly different environment. House went to the loony bin for a while. But the whole point was to take a story arc and somehow land him back at the same hospital with the appearance of consequence to his actions, but without actual consequence. Yes, House changed over his seasons from 'A difficult Doctor who is an ass' to 'A difficult Doctor who is an ass for these reasons'.

Books on the other hand - they still have the potential to be free form. Sometimes a 200 page book can become a two hour movie, and sometimes a 200 page book can become a two hour and thirty minute movie..
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:55 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I can easily name books and movies that deeply affected me and that changed me in some way, but it's hard to do that with TV shows. The Sopranos comes closest. Dramatic TV is still mostly at the level of interesting fun. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Comedic TV, on the other hand, is better than comedy in any other medium.
posted by painquale at 6:01 AM on February 28


The preposterous over-hyping of the rather silly "Breaking Bad" did nothing to eliminate the artistic and cultural significance of film, let alone the novel, except maybe in the eyes of marketers. Sorry.

Christ you are right. The first time I finally saw a few episodes if Breaking Bad I thought really? This is what the hype is over? Sloppy dialogue and uneven acting? As I kept saying to my friend, "The Wire it ain't!"

But to answer the question of the article, hell no!
posted by ReeMonster at 6:06 AM on February 28


Works the other way, too - sadly: The novel, The Interestings, reads like the most puffed-up soap opera ever to appear on television and it routinely got cited as one of the best novels of last year.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 6:12 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


but if you're going to take up that debate,

There's no question some great television serials are being made these days (we finished the last few episodes of season 3 of Louie last night, for example -- amazing).

But it seems to me one of the most important distinctions between the tv and book media is that of ease of accessibility, and that the cable tv industry continues to greedily shoot itself in the foot over and over: I can get any great novel I read an intriguing review of in at most a couple days, whether from a local bookstore or one of several web booksellers, or instantly for the usually cheaper ebook version.

But to see the best of the highly-touted tv series being made, I have to subscribe to I-don't-even-know-anymore-how-many different services and pay something upwards of $200 a month for the big web & tv bundle plus DVR equipment rental and premium packages and then get Netflix and Amazon Prime and maybe Hulu+ or TiVo instead of the cable company's on top of that.

That's a hurdle I'm just not willing to leap, though I imagine I could afford it better than many, it just galls me. Netflix has been a help, since it rounds up a lot of the good non-HBO series (if I am willing to wait 6-12 months to watch), but I do still long for some a la carte arrangement where I can choose the quality services I want and not have to deal with and pay for 500 channels of crap. (And no, I don't do torrents any more; I'm getting old and don't need either the annoyance of the process or the potential hassles of getting caught.)
posted by aught at 6:13 AM on February 28


As a reader of SF and occasional fantasy, I don't find that TV has ideas as interesting or in-depth as novels do. Movies sometimes fare a little better, but they're still not that close. Part of it is the medium, and part of it is the market.

I'm trying to imagine something like The City and The City or Implied Spaces or Rupetta on the screen, and I don't see it happening.

That said, I really don't think Firefly would have worked nearly as well as a novel. (And yeah, that's the most recent example I can think of because I just don't have a lot of patience for TV. I watched a few episodes of Supernatural, but got bored with it even though my wife is a fan.)
posted by Foosnark at 6:16 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Works the other way, too - sadly: The novel, The Interestings, reads like the most puffed-up soap opera ever to appear on television and it routinely got cited as one of the best novels of last year.

"Why are you oppressing women's writing???"

(Sorry, just parodying Meg Wolitzer's usual strategy for countering people who review her work negatively. While I agree with some of her starting points about women's writing in our culture, her equating the treatment of women's writing with her own reception as a novelist always feels ickily self-serving.)
posted by aught at 6:19 AM on February 28


I think that you could argue that there are structural issues that make it hard to produce really innovative or challenging TV. Because TV has traditionally been beholden to networks, and because networks have traditionally had a limited number of hours of screen time, there's been a bias towards things that were relatively safe. If someone wanted to produce a TV version of Ulysses, they'd never get the funding, and even if they did they'd never find the TV equivalent of Sylvia Beach to put it on air. Netflix and other alternative delivery models could change that, but for the moment, I think there are some barriers to formal innovation in TV. But I think that's a moot point, because not all literature, or even all great literature, is formally innovative, either.

Mostly I think it's kind of dumb to compare art forms to each other and somehow rank them as better or worse. There probably are things you can do with literature that you can't do with TV. There are things you can do with visual mediums that you can't do with the written word. You could say that "it is voice, tone, the sense of the author’s mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images" about movies, too, and I don't think that anyone would seriously say that on the pages of the New York Times, because serious people are no longer permitted to dismiss movies as an art form. TV isn't literature and doesn't replace literature, but that doesn't mean that it's not art or even that it's inferior to literature.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:20 AM on February 28 [7 favorites]


Are the New ‘Golden Age’ TV Shows the New Novels?

Obviously, since "the novel is dead" and yet, just as obviously, still alive, the only TV show that can be said to be truly a novel is The Walking Dead.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:31 AM on February 28


But to see the best of the highly-touted tv series being made, I have to subscribe to I-don't-even-know-anymore-how-many different services and pay something upwards of $200 a month for the big web & tv bundle plus DVR equipment rental and premium packages and then get Netflix and Amazon Prime and maybe Hulu+ or TiVo instead of the cable company's on top of that.

Look, I'm not going to argue that cable isn't expensive, but in fact, you're comparing the ease of getting one novel in one format (go to the bookstore!) with what it takes and costs to essentially obtain access to everything that has ever been on television to the greatest extent possible in formats that allow you to watch it in your house, download it to a tablet, take it with you on your phone, etc. etc.. You can see many, many, many highly touted shows by going to one place one time and pushing one button and paying less than the cost of a hardback book. And many more by ordering some DVDs, exactly like you would with a book.

You don't need a DVR, you don't need to spend $200 on cable/internet (even I don't spend quite that much, I don't think, and I have stupid everything because of stupid work), and you certainly don't need Hulu Plus AND Netflix AND Amazon Prime.

You want to watch Breaking Bad? You can do that from your chair, in your house, without subscribing to anything except broadband. Even many current shows can be bought a la carte through iTunes or Amazon and watched as the episodes are released.

It's bad, but if you're going one series at a time the way you'd go one book at a time, it's not quite THIS bad. Like I said, cable is a freaking bear if you need everything, but if you're talking about the most highly touted shows, you can buy them a lot like you buy books.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:32 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Comes into the thread to scream "TRUE DETECTIVE" while staring into a mirror and drooling on my bib. Upon which is printed the words "BIG RIB BIB".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:37 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Adding to Linda_Holmes's point, if you have a DVD player, you can also check out TV shows on DVD from the library. That's how I watched Mad Men. And a Netflix subscription is $8 a month, which is less than one paperback book a month will cost you. I actually don't see TV shows as being that different from books. You pay a lot if you want immediate access: cable is expensive, and so are hardback books. If you're willing to wait, you can get much cheaper access or free access from the library.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:14 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Once I was teaching a required comp class and we were reading something I'm-not-sure-what, but it had some elevated tone, and I asked some question about the tone, and a student said, "it's like what somebody who watches a lot of television would say," the implication being that some kinds of television, at least, were some sort of elevated culture.

As somebody who watched every episode of The Jersey Shore (there were reasons) I found that statement really disorienting.
posted by angrycat at 7:37 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Adding to Linda_Holmes's point, if you have a DVD player, you can also check out TV shows on DVD from the library.

Yes, I do that a lot, though the scratched and scuffed factor of discs that have been fumbled in and out of people's laptop disc trays is a major annoyance there. I think one of the limiting factors for me (looking at Linda Holmes' reply) is that I don't want to watch tv on my computer, but on my tv, so, you know, being an old etcetc, is its own punishment in part.

But even feeding my giant backlog of great books I don't spend as much on books as I would on TV with all the bells and whistles (buy in paperback, buy mostly used, borrow from libraries a lot for stuff I want to read but don't think I'd want to keep, etc.)
posted by aught at 7:38 AM on February 28


(Also, surreality of feeling chastened by Linda Holmes, about an hour after hearing her mentioned on NPR's Morning Edition, duly noted.)
posted by aught at 7:39 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


This comment by ArbitraryAndCapricious is perfect, and not just for the mention of Sylvia Beach.
posted by mediareport at 7:39 AM on February 28


All art is defined on one axis by constraint. The constraint of a novel is the lack of auditory and non-text visual cues. The constraint of a comic book is the lack of room on the page (and by default the book). The constraint of Television is length and the need to constantly produce (at least American Television).

There are exceptions to this but largely it is true that we have a good metric for what makes 'good' and 'bad' art in terms of this axis.

That said, the only real comparison between TV and Novels is that Television has gotten better over the last 15 years at working within its constraints, while novels have remained mostly static over the same time. This is not anything bad about novels, we are simply more practiced at making them than we were at Television (and will remain to practice making novels more than TV for the foreseeable future).

In regards to the point about TV stories not having traditional beginning-middle-end: I agree, but...

TV miniseries like Roots and shows like Babylon 5 and Wiseguy (to a lesser extent) broke this mold some time ago. I think that American TV could take a page from UK TV on this point: once a joke is done, they stop telling it. (usually)
posted by Fuka at 7:40 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Not chastening! I understand, believe me. My cable bill is ridiculous. I get it. I was just looking at it the other way.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 8:07 AM on February 28


In the sense that TV dramas have become a(the) common cultural touch point for conversation, yes - they are like novels. In the sense that they can tell a complex, moving and engaging story, they are like novels (although I would argue that both mediums have different strengths and abilities to manage complex, deep narratives; the best novels and the best TV shows are those that use their respective strengths to their own great advantage).

But they are some ways they are not (or at least, some are not): TV shows are often prone to carrying on long past their best before date: Consider The Sopranos, which likely should've ended three seasons before it did. Or Lost, which (while I dislike how it handled much of its run) has some place in this Golden Age - also a show that bloated and provided a sense that it was going somewhere, when it really wasn't. Novels should not do that - and I won't say that there aren't novels (or book series) that aren't guilty of this sin - but they seem less likely to be guilty of it than TV shows IMO.

Novels come complete. TV shows, by and large, are not - often they are still in production, still shooting while being aired - and as such can be dragged on past a logical end point or suffer a quick death before we know what we have.

One of the major ways I see them as different - and Breaking Bad (perhaps at the pinnacle of the recent Golden Age of TV) is a prime example of it. The best shows of this Golden Age are not (to use the framework of Auerbach's Cosmology) steady state shows; they are expansionary or big crunch models and as such they depend on the viewer knowing what has gone before. Seeds are planted, reveals are made, plans and plots are hatched - and without understanding the history, new viewers can get lost easily. In a novel, I can flip back and re-read a chapter easily, be reminded of how something came to be or who that character was. Not so with broadcast television - at least until recently.

This, I would suggest, is a critical difference. Breaking Bad's early years were not runaway ratings successes by any means - the show built on word of mouth and critical acclaim, and had four times the number watch the start of season five as were there at the start.(And I think that article ignores that fact that for some of its examples, these things were not necessary -e.g., Seinfeld). For that to happen, other things had to occur:

-AMC ran marathons of rebroadcasts so that audiences could catch up;
-PVR recording - you could record all those marathons because you didn't have to be on hand every 6 hours to change the tape in the VHS;
-Netflix arose;
-on demand streaming via cable companies;
-DVD release of seasons of TV series had become commonplace;
-and - dare I say it? I think there's a potential role for the torrents and piracy in building the audience as well;

Without these, I'm not convinced that TV becomes as capable of creating the stories it is currently.

And a last note - the current Golden Age has its roots earlier than The Sopranos; I would point out that it likely begins - in its earliest form - with Hill Street Blues and that there is a slow building progression of successive TV shows that bring us to the now. Someday I may try to trace that lineage.
posted by nubs at 8:10 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Not novels, just the new pulp fiction.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:29 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Novels come complete.

. . . don't I wish.

I actually agree with you, otherwise. Though books in a series -- a better comparison, in some ways, to tv shows -- also do need to build word of mouth. Authors in general need to do this. (And the novel version of "series that should have ended sooner" is "author too famous to edit properly", I think.)

Is good tv very good? Yes. Is the pinnacle of TV at the level of the pinnacle of things in the written word? Probably not yet. But most books and plays aren't at that level either.
posted by jeather at 8:33 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Novels come complete.

. . . don't I wish.


Yeah, I probably should've expanded on this more - what I'm trying to say is that the novel has been written, the ending is known to the creator, and they've had time to go back, refine and edit and sharpen that story (or at least, they should have done so).

This is starting to change on TV - some TV series are now bringing everyone together, shooting the season, and then they can release it all at once (House of Cards) or still release one episode a week (Game of Thrones) but the show creators have had a chance to see it all together and make some decisions about what works and what doesn't in light of the whole.

Is the pinnacle of TV at the level of the pinnacle of things in the written word? Probably not yet. But most books and plays aren't at that level either.

And I find that a hard comparison to make because I think to reach the pinnacle of whichever form relies on using the particular strengths of that form while minimizing their weaknesses...so the pinnacle of TV will always look different than the pinnacle of the word.

But boy do we love our stories, whatever form.
posted by nubs at 9:07 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I probably should've expanded on this more - what I'm trying to say is that the novel has been written, the ending is known to the creator, and they've had time to go back, refine and edit and sharpen that story (or at least, they should have done so).

I know what you mean -- but this is only true for novels that stand on their own, not books as part of a series. (Or, sometimes, being serialised -- I believe mefi's own Scalzi wrote all of The Human Division before it was released [though it is the first part of a longer story], while Kindle serials are often written chapter by chapter.)

Which can be considered much like the tv shows that shoot an entire season at once but have multiple seasons. A miniseries is perhaps more like a standalone book.

And I find that a hard comparison to make because I think to reach the pinnacle of whichever form relies on using the particular strengths of that form while minimizing their weaknesses...so the pinnacle of TV will always look different than the pinnacle of the word.

I agree. But I think that the best tv is still to come, in a way that the best novels aren't. There are still great novels coming out, but they aren't very much greater than the ones from the past, while I think the great tv of the future will actually be better than the great tv of the past has been.

That doesn't mean that I think that television is not worth watching now. I think it is. I have many shows I love. I don't think it's worse -- or better -- than reading. (Books, for me, are primarily solitary, while television isn't.)
posted by jeather at 9:35 AM on February 28


philip-random: "when TV shows start organizing themselves like good novels (ie: plotted with a beginning-middle-end which is determined by the writer/s before an audience is involved, not determined by advertisers and/or networks' buy-in), then I'll start to take the TV series as novel idea seriously. And I do hope to. I think the Netflix model is getting close. But it still feels hung up on not messing with the proverbial golden goose (ie: not killing off popular characters and other market-pleasing concerns), whereas truly great novels tend to let their own gravity and momentum guide them. "

I take it you have not watched shows like The Shield (spoiler in here) and other original series which do in fact feature arcs spanning the entirety of all seasons and the killing off of beloved characters. You can even go back as far as B5 to find these things.

polymodus: "Sorry but TV is still basically junk food. There are cognitive reasons to believe why this is the case. The idea that it is somehow comparable with the act of reading a book, it should not even be on the table."

I suspect if you approach watching all TV series with that kind of preconception then you're going to experience what you expect to experience. To paraphrase RAW somebunall TV series are junk just as somebunall novels are also junk. I read a lot and watch TV series a lot. I have read books where I'm pretty sure my brainwaves went flat and I've watched TV shows where I was as absorbed and engaged as with the best books I've read. I've returned to TV series over and over just like I have to my favorite books and continue to discover new subtleties and details in both that I was previously unaware off.

It really puzzles me why people have such a surprisingly intense need/desire to rank one above the other as is on display in this thread. There are numerous media one can use for telling stories. And for all of them you can find examples ranging from abysmal to fantastic. There may be differences in how you engage with them but as long as you do engage I find it silly to even try and rank the media rather than the content. I work in the world of feature film (which, I'm told, outranks TV as a medium) but my experience is that whether a story is told in book, film, play, audio, TV or other forms matters mostly only in terms of suitability and not all that much. What REALLY matters is if it's a good story to start with. I have yet to find a book that would render a shitty story better just because it's in book form.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:37 AM on February 28


emptythought: "It reminds me a lot of the stodgy old person arguments on how electronic music isn't really music "because there's no instruments". It's weak, and if truly analyzed makes you sound like some mixture of an elitist and a luddite."

I want to favorite this a million times.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:38 AM on February 28


The American model of TV - no fixed endpoint, drive it until its wheels fall off, etc - is what gives folks the junk food/garbage idea of television. There's no sense of narrative in that. Borrowing from the British model - a beginning, middle, and end all planned IN ADVANCE - makes infinitely more sense to the part of our brains that craves narrative structure. Shows like that feel more complete and complex. I find comedies like Peep Show to be especially engaging because 1) they're short at six episodes and 2) there's a sense of experiencing a full story by the end of each season, not an endless series of vignettes.
posted by GrapeApiary at 9:55 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


The thing I love about TV these days is that everyone is discussing them afterwards. Every week we're hooked on a new serial and expert critics are writing up reviews on them and we're analyzing and thinking about them. It's a lot of fun--but that's not something we can do about books because they only come out once a year. (And since I'm a speed reader, I go through them quickly to boot.) I do kind of like that Kindle Serials are trying to do episodic writing these days--I enjoyed the hell out of MeFi's Own jscalzi's Human Division and Seanan McGuire's Indexing when they were going on, and now I'm reading Gooseberry Bluff after the fact in its entirety. It's just enjoyable to get to think about and discuss with people how this week went and how it's going and where you think next week is going to go. But then again, humans do enjoy the hell out of soap operas. (Though sadly, not as much as they used to.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:56 PM on February 28


Maybe you're thinking of the wrong books. Come back and try to make that equivalence after reading Pynchon's Against the Day, or even David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (the original book, not the unnecessarily sausage-grindered movie version).

Really re-read what i said there and consider it. I was not saying they aren't engaging, or thought provoking, or enthralling... but just that the common argument that tv is just some couch potato lazy brain-switched-off lowest form of entertainment to keep the neurons firing can be turned around on books as well.

Neither medium is a dialog, neither medium is an interaction. They are both one way streets, and even at their most engaging best you are still consuming without contributing. Just because it makes thoughts fire off in your brain does not elevate it beyond that.

And the real reason i went down that road and really stood up on the soapbox for that one is because a lot of the criticisms i hear not only unfairly pit the best novels up against the worst TV shows or films, but also depict one as slothy unthinking, and the other as some kind of scholarly full-brain engagement.

They are both media to be consumed. Any presentation that expands in to one being "deeper" than the other really starts to skirt dangerously close to the aforementioned murky territory of "One is for educated thinking men who are literate and scholarly, the other is for illiterate peanut-brained peasants who couldn't read a book with a gun to their head". You have to be very very careful making the sort of points you and others are trying to make if you're going to avoid dogwhistling and weasel-wording your way in to some sort of class warfare area of discussion and propaganda.

And I find that a hard comparison to make because I think to reach the pinnacle of whichever form relies on using the particular strengths of that form while minimizing their weaknesses...so the pinnacle of TV will always look different than the pinnacle of the word

This is an excellent point, and it really makes me think that the best comparison for TV and film in the modern age is legitimately theater.

I would absolutely LOVE to read a well written post or article by someone with the premise of "How theater moved to the screen, and went from something both for the upper classes and the everyman that all respected to something "low class" and "beneath" true art.

There's also an excellent discussion to be had here on how video games are being placed even below TV on the stupid-brain scale, despite the fact that as a form of media and writing its potential far exceeds anything before seeing as how the conversation between the art and the consumer is actually a conversation, not a lecture.

We're still in the era that film was in the 1930s or even 20s with that one though. I hope i live long enough to see that become a serious form of storytelling that matches, and likely eventually exceeds the best novels and films.
posted by emptythought at 7:08 PM on February 28


But people have been writing about TV and brainwaves for almost as long as there's been electroencephalography

Actually, recent fMRI research has proven that TV stimulates the reward centers of the brain in exactly the same way as drugs, sex, and chocolahahaha sorry, I can't

But anyway, that initial Krugman study comparing reading to TV, back in the 70s, seems to have had all of n = 1 subject. Plus, if you look at the actual sources misleadingly pull-quoted on that TV Smarter page, they go on to say exactly the opposite of what that source claims: subsequent EEG research didn't really find much of a difference between reading and watching TV, and found that the primary difference was content, not the delivery mechanism. (This is without even getting into the fact that EEG has low spatial resolution, low spatial coverage, and low signal/noise ratios even compared to something like fMRI.) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by en forme de poire at 8:05 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


no. TV shows are the new stories, and they have been for 50+ years. the fact that the quality is better than the dreadful 80s and 90s is more about the shift in consumer electronics and cable money.

I would point out that it likely begins - in its earliest form - with Hill Street Blues

Twin Peaks. Or maybe Soap. The beginning of Meta.

the Netflix model is getting close

the bittorrent model is a lot closer.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:41 AM on March 1


That's useful to know, en forme de poire, thanks.
posted by rory at 3:02 AM on March 1


the fact that the quality is better than the dreadful 80s and 90s is more about the shift in consumer electronics and cable money.

also something to do with Marshall McLuhan -- the notion that we don't really understand the messages coming from a given medium unless we understand the medium itself.

I grew up until age nine or ten in a three channel universe. Then came cable in the late 1960s and five or six times as many options, which had to change the nature of the broadcaster-producer-marketer-viewer paradigm. Then, come the 1980s, we had more and more cable options (Pay TV among them), and a proliferation of VHS recording options. TV was now way less about having to be in a certain place at a certain time with a certain degree of focus.

And so on to the interwebs infused "now", which is itself an ongoing evolution of something I don't think anyone really grasps (though Netflix is doing pretty well at the moment). I've personally been living without a TV in my home for better part of a decade and thus, when I visit someone who has one, am instantly struck by how different that media-viewer relationship can be. The content itself may be exactly the same, but how the world bumps up against is most definitely not.

So yeah, maybe we are at a place now where dramatic TV can begin to work on us in a complex and sophisticated way, similar to how novels do. Similar but definitely not the same. That is, even were a novel to get adapted to TV with every character, every scene, every theme intact, it would still have a different affect. Because the medium is different.

Viva that, think.
posted by philip-random at 12:10 PM on March 1


Neither medium is a dialog, neither medium is an interaction.

I have no idea how anyone could possibly make that statement, about either novels or television. The interactivity between author/creator and reader/viewer is so obvious, so patent, that I'm sitting here at a loss to understand the species of being that could not only not feel it, but also vehemently deny it.
posted by mediareport at 5:40 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]


Yea, i guess i could have phrased that better. The "Video-based media is dumb" people just irritate me so much that i really wanted to go hardline.

A better way to phrase that point would have been something along the lines of "neither medium is more of a dialog or interaction than the other".

Basically, it bugs me that people act like one is some sort of dialog or interaction and the other isn't. and i got a bit too harsh and went a bit too far on that one.
posted by emptythought at 3:56 PM on March 2


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