The Chronicle Review

Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel


Bryan Cranston as Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad"
September 17, 2012

In 1973, Tom Wolfe, nattily dressed ringleader-theoretician of the New Journalism, declared that his uppity oeuvre had bumped off "the novel as the number one literary genre, starting the first new direction in American literature in half a century." Licking his chops over the carcass, he explained that the no-longer-Great American Novel had croaked as a result of complications from congenital self-absorption and straying from the healthy engagement with manners and morals that had been the novel's lifeblood since its birth in the 18th century. "The top rung is up for grabs," he gloated. "The Huns have arrived."

As usual, Wolfe was a little hyperbolic, but he had a point. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), and his own The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)—not to mention any issue of Rolling Stone or Esquire—contained more razor-edged prose and narrative propulsion than the dreary cascade of academic-minded fiction dripping from writers' workshops, where the target readership was mainly other writers.

A similar status upheaval may be happening in the realm of screen entertainment. Long top dog in the media hierarchy, the Hollywood feature film—the star-studded best in show that garnered the respectful monographs, the critical cachet, and a secure place on the university curriculum—is being challenged by the lure of long-form, episodic television. Let's call the breed Arc TV, a moniker that underscores the dramatic curvature of the finely crafted, adult-minded serials built around arcs of interconnected action unfolding over the life span of the series. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones—the highest-profile entrees in a gourmet menu of premium programming—are where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl. Fess up: Are you more jazzed about the release of the new Abraham Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg or the season premiere of Homeland (September 30, 10 p.m., on Showtime)? The lineup hasn't quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.

This being from the medium that inspired the wisecrack "Imitation is the sincerest form of television," Arc TV has antecedents aplenty. The format owes obvious debts to a swath of small-screen influences—the mid-70s explosion in quality TV, the BBC's Masterpiece Theater imports on PBS, Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) and L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94), and especially Stephen J. Cannell's Wiseguy (CBS, 1987-90), the show usually credited with bringing the multi-episode arc to serial American television.

Yet its real kinship is literary, not televisual. Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

Traditionally, even late into the age of cable, television thrived on two durable genres, the weekly 30-minute sitcom and the hourlong drama. Play the theme song, rack up the signature montage, and a virgin viewer has no trouble following along. Each episode was discrete and self-contained, wrapped up on schedule, with no overarching Ur-plot, designed to be digested full at one sitting, and meant to spiral autonomously ever after in syndication: Gilligan stranded forever on his island, Columbo freeze-framed in his trench coat.

The dramatis personae existed in a realm that was picaresque, a pre-novel mode in which a one-dimensional protagonist is hit by one damn thing after another. A viewer could spend years, maybe decades, with the likes of Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O and not know a whit about the hero's psychic interior or personal history. Many of the surviving remnants of network television follow that time-worn template. The repetition compulsion of Homer Simpson—always the same, never learning from experience—is an ironic homage to the picaresque legacy: "D'oh! D'oh! D'oh!"

By contrast, Arc TV is all about back story and evolution. Again like the novel, the aesthetic payoff comes from prolonged, deep involvement in the fictional universe and, like a serious play or film, the stagecraft demands close attention. For the show to cast its magic, the viewer must leap full body into the video slipstream. Watch, hour by hour, the slow-burn descent into the home-cooked hell of the high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad, or the unraveling by degrees of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, falling off her meds and cracking to pieces in Homeland.

At its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel, where small gestures and table manners reveal the content of a character molded by convention, class, and culture. In an emblematic moment in Mad Men, Don Draper cues up his turntable to the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," gives the trippy dissonance a fair hearing, and walks away unmoved: He will live and die a Sinatra man. For the viewer who tunes in late, the strands of the intricate plot lines may seem too tangled ever to unthread, but the insular complexities are how the shows pack their punch. One of the nice things about Mad Men is that there is no top-of-the-episode recap for come-latelies: If you can't take the heat, get out of the gestalt.

The Era of the Arc would have been impossible without two blessings of the post-network age: the decline of censorship and the revolutions in television technology. Freed from the corset of the Television Code, the video successor to Hollywood's restrictive Production Code, even basic cable may venture into topics, language, and imagery unthinkable during the zenith of three-network hegemony. The way Game of Thrones flaunts full frontal nudity or The Walking Dead wallows in forensic gross-out are the most naked manifestations of the new license, but the more provocative defiance is in the breaking of generic conventions embedded in the DNA of the medium since the days of kinescope.

Predictable outcomes at the top of the hour being the main selling point of conventional television, Arc TV delights in jolting jaded viewers with sneaky bushwhacks and jaw-dropping plot twists. Adhering to the book by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones dispatched—decapitated, actually—the alpha star and focus of audience identification in the penultimate episode of Season 1. In Episode 3 of the fifth season of Mad Men, the first glimpse of the once-svelte Betty Draper, now a plump hausfrau scarfing ice cream, was as shocking as watching Janet Leigh get killed early in Psycho (1960). As Breaking Bad spirals to a crash in its final season, I have no idea (nor do I want any) of what will befall the meth heads in the madness. The warning signs that have recently become de rigueur in television criticism ("spoiler alert!") presuppose that, at last, there is something on television that may actually be spoilable.

The new technologies of reception and delivery may have been even more pivotal than the loosening of censorship in nurturing the growth of the genre. Viewing and reviewing shows on mobile devices, iPads, and computer screens, or via DVR and box sets, not only helps aficionados connect dots and track motifs across a season but encourages artists to more carefully embroider the details of their product. Often consumed in marathon sessions of obsessive binge viewing, the television box set, a season's worth of episodes sans commercials, often with commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes extras, assumes that no less than the big screen, the small screen is worth a second and third look.

Besides, the phrase "small screen" to denote living-room reception is a misnomer in a marketplace of 60-inch, high-definition, flat-screen hardware. Heretofore a medium of blinkered perspectives and talking heads, television now possesses the high resolution and horizontal space for expressive cinematography and precision-point mise-en-scène. The camerawork for Breaking Bad highlights the parched, sun-drenched vistas surrounding Albuquerque (a relief after eons of L.A.-centric terrain), and the set design for Mad Men meticulously mimics the knickknacks and appliances in the offices and households of the mid-1960s. "Wow," marveled my wife during a recent episode. "We had the exact same toaster in our kitchen."

This flowering of arc aesthetics owes its heaviest debt to two foundational models: the mobbed-up soap opera The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) and the beloved urban crime meller The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). Though The Sopranos grabbed higher ratings and mainstream accolades, The Wire has had a longer shelf life—indeed, it has attained pantheon status as the gold standard for the genre. In 2011, in an op-ed in The Boston Globe, Carlo Rotella, director of American studies at Boston College, attributed its stature to a unique blend of streetwise patter and social commentary. "When it comes to thinking about complex problems involving cities, crime, class, race, and our badly damaged political system, this TV show is a lot smarter than our political culture," he argued. No wonder "it's on the syllabi of courses in the humanities and social sciences, and the first round of Wire scholarship is already out, with much more on the way."

Rotella is right about the boom in Arc TV scholarship. A very partial listing of some recent contributions includes Mad Men, edited by Gary Edgerton (I.B. Tauris, 2011); Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series, edited by Scott F. Stoddard (McFarland, 2011); Interrogating The Shield, edited by Nicholas Ray (Syracuse University Press, 2012); Deadwood, by Ina Rae Hark (Wayne State University Press, 2012); Deadwood, by Jason Jacob (BFI, 2012); and, in an inevitable addition to a marketable high concept, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry, edited by David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp (Open Court, 2012).

Smelling fresh prey, graduate students and university publishers are closing in on a genre ripe for the exegetical plucking. The attraction is obvious: The material repays close textual scrutiny, it is easily rewound in the classroom, and has the necessary precondition for critical garlands in the academy: the byline of a singular, creative artist. Although they are collaborative productions with staffs of hired-gun writers, the shows are usually the babies of a single, workaholic show runner (the industry term for the producer-writer who in another field might be called an auteur). Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), and Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) infuse their work with an overarching artistic vision that, no matter who writes and directs individual episodes, charts the flight path for the series.

All of the shows have fervent-slash-maniacal fan bases whose Facebook tentacles and official and unofficial Web sites ratchet up viewer investment in the text and cement emotional imprinting. This means that while Arc TV makes special demands on the viewer, the contract works both ways. Consider the already notorious cautionary tale from the first season of The Killing (AMC, 2011-12). Based on an addictive Danish series and transported to the drizzly dankness of Seattle, The Killing went down dead ends and tossed out red herrings as its detectives tried to solve a heart-wrenching murder case, before finally cornering the only possible perpetrator—only to punk out in the very last seconds of the last episode, denying closure, defying logic, and making the previous 13-hour investment meaningless. Fans scorched the Web with a fusillade of invective. Humbled and whiplashed, AMC executives apologized and promised to make amends, but the damage was done. Unable to recoup the faith of the betrayed demo, the series was canceled at the end of the second season.

For the media scholar, the proliferation of high-quality, long-form series presents one big practical problem: It is flat-out impossible to keep up with the flow. With a finite number of decent films being released each year, a critic can master the major trends, see the important films, and cultivate a specialty. However, on television today, so much good material is out there, on so many cable platforms, not just of domestic origin but international, that the almost certain pleasures of the texts must be denied. Check out The Bridge, another grim Danish crime drama, or the Israeli series Ha-Borer, about a Jewish mafia, urge friends.

Not if you want to have a life. The reason I've said so little about True Blood or Dexter is that I have never seen a single episode of either show, an admission no self-respecting film geek would ever make about a John Ford Western or Arthur Freed musical. Wasteland it is not—vast it is.

Thomas Doherty is chair of the American-studies program at Brandeis University. His books include Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.