are television shows the new novel?

I once heard someone describe Mad Men as the television equivalent of the “Great American Novel.” The “Great American Novel,” as a descriptor, carries with it sense of formality and scope. By definition, it is… well, defining.

What does it mean, then, when something like Mad Men has a far more expansive impact on the cultural landscape than your average contemporary novel? Are we really in, as some critics might claim, a golden age of television? Or does television just reach a broader audience than literature?

Let me present Exhibit B: the recent (and somewhat surprising) popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Before it was a television show, the books were considered bestsellers, but definitely not a household name. Now it seems like everyone is reading them. George R. R. Martin has said many times how the sheer scale of his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire could not have worked as a mere feature film; it needed to be a television show. Enter HBO and now the first novel in the series has become the first season of the show. Each episode was just another chapter in an ongoing story.

The result was essentially a novelastelevision. This made me think.

Perhaps, television shows are really the novels of our era. When considering the last ten years or so,what book has captured the zeitgeist in that way the Great American Novel claims to? Has a film? No, it seems to be television shows that define our era in creative form, be it everything from Lost to Glee.  It seems that scripted television has occupied a niche in our lives that used to belong solely to books.

Each season is a novel; each episode a chapter.

We watch television differently now than we did ten years ago.

What started with television box sets on DVD has only increased with the innovations of PVR, Netflix, iTunes and all other avenues, legal or not. Before this, we watched a single episode at a time, unless we were lucky enough to catch our favourite show featured in the odd Boxing Day marathon, or were blessed with several hours a day in reruns.

Now we have access to an entire season or even series all at once. I have found with most of my friends and family, we no longer seem to have several “regular” shows we watch; we move on from one to the next, powering through an entire series at a time. We ask each other “What are you watching now?” as if it’s the same thing as “Read any good books lately?”

For instance, a few of my roommates are onto Tru Blood, while I just finished watching all of the BBC sitcom Pulling on Netflix.  Now I’m working my way through all eight episodes of New Amsterdam, watching one episode each night in bed like reading a chapter of a book before turning out the light.

But it’s not just how we watch television that has brought about this change, it is television itself. The structure of the television series, especially the hour-long drama, has become far more serialized than it was ten years ago. Call it the Lost effect, but there is far less focus on the episodic story lines and far more focus on the overarching plot.

It seems television has gone through a bit of a paradigm shift where the Simple Premise – the “these people in this situation” – is no longer enough.

The main narrative is driven by a question. Think of the closing line in the pilot of Lost: “Guys, where are we?” That question drove the entire show. Think of Mad Men‘s tagline: “Who is Don Draper?”

Granted, yes, ongoing  questions have always driven a show to some degree, usually through will-they-won’t-they sexual tension, but you were never really watching Friends in order to know whether Ross and Rachel did end up together, you watched it because it was “six attractive people living in New York.”

This way of serializing a piece of fiction – while it worked for Dickens and soap operas – also makes it more difficult to sustain the traditional habits of television viewing. It is not as easy for viewers to follow serial storytelling with a whole week between episodes. If Arrested Development had come out just a few years later, would it have found a larger audience while still on air?

Perhaps this new way of watching television and this shift in storytelling structure are linked, but in a strange, chicken-and-egg dialectic. Or perhaps they are just a parallel evolution?

I’m not too sure what this might mean in the “big picture” sense. It seems far too easy to fall into a knee-jerk anti-television response. I mean, does it not sound rather crude to suggest that television will actually replace books? Isn’t that a rather antiquarian fear?

I have no real answers. Thoughts?

panic on the streets of london

I wanted to write about the London riots  but I’ll still trying to organize my thoughts. This is all I have to say right now.

I feel like London is a wizened old man: the kind who sits on a park bench, smoking a withered cigarette, old tattoos fading into oblivion along the forearms, sleeves pushed up on a cardigan, and a hairline that’s receding; you can see the liver spots beneath the wispy, grey strands.

London longs to tell you stories of the good old days. London has lived through so many generations. London has seen wars, but “good old wars,” you know, the kind that meant something.

London, the old man, is a fully realized character: he’s full of contradictions, fallacies, and hidden truths. He is not sure what defines his present; at times he feels that he is nothing but his memories. But these memories are perpetually rewritten as each day another layer of myth-making takes hold: another memory is gone, another memory is made, then remade, and remade again.

London doesn’t know his own history better than any of us do. He clings to memories that he thinks mean something, but in the end, none of them do. There’s nothing but Now.

London has gone from rags to riches and back again so many times that he no longer knows what he is any more. It is all locked somewhere inside of him. He’s lived through civil war as well. It might seem like so long ago, but it’s not. Not really. Memory works in funny ways; time has no bearing on whether we remember certain things more clearly than others.

London sits, smoking his cigarette, saying something glib like “hot fecking summer, eh?”  The casual bitterness in his tone, and that brief way in which his eyes take to the sky as if to say I’m too old for this shit, betray the fact that perhaps his wars are not over after all.

As London sits on his park bench, I can’t help but think of Vancouver as an arrogant young kid. Vancouver: lacking history but full of self-importance.

Vancouver: if the world’s a condominium complex, you’re the show home, beautiful but emotionless. Your possessions lack context.

London, the bitter old man, eyes this cocky young kid with condescension. Vancouver, he says, You think you’re the first to think of this? You think you’re the first to get angry? The first to burn things, the first to loot? You think you have a reason for this?

Well, son, let me show you how it’s done.  

behavioural tendencies of lower commune residents with focus on frequency of alcohol consumption

There’s an interesting pattern of behaviour that has established itself amongst Lower Commune residents.

It seems to start like this:

Subject A arrives home following a bad day at work.

A bad mood is inevitable.

Occasionally this bad mood is compounded by a) Mondays, b) other monthly occurrences, c) personal baggage, d) nasty surprises, or e) all of the above*

Subject A’s bad mood is characterized by such symptoms as a furrowed brow, lack of reapplication of makeup or other negligence of personal hygiene, donning of pyjama pants within five minutes of reentering house, and, especially the frequent emission of a noise best likened to the intolerable drone of a dozen lazy hornets (henceforth “bitching“).

Subject A usually engages in this behaviour at some length, while Subject B nods politely but basically (and wisely) ignores Subject A.

It seems to end like this:

Subject B, unable to tolerate the bitching any longer, says these words: “Do you want a beer?”

Subject A always replies with “Yes, please. Thank god.”

And the Lower Commune is in harmony once more.

*i.e. Today.

how apple products will bring about a dystopian future

My cellular telephone is currently broken following an unfortunate canoeing accident.

This means that I am not longer enjoying the benefits of an iPhone*, but rather struggling to navigate the murky controls of Dr. Roommate’s old Blackberry. There are so many little icons and I have to roll a little ball around just to find them. It took me an hour to figure how to actually make a call with it. I still don’t know how to text. A trained monkey would do better with the Blackberry. No joke.

When I really start to think about it, my mind is boggled by the thought that this technology that currently frustrates me is actually far more advanced than the phone I was using a mere year ago. But all that one did was make calls. The Blackberry can do more than that. A lot more.

Not that I can figure out any of it.

And my iPhone was just as unruly a multi-functional beast. But as fat as my thumbs are, at least I knew how to use it.

This leads me to conclude that Apple technology, while something of an emotional safe-haven for us who lack the ability to figure out electronic gadgets, might actually be dumbing down society.

Why, Apple, why do you have to create products that are so damn easy to use?

*A week without it led me to realize that the only apps I really use (in descending order) are: Wikipedia, Instagram, and Text Messaging. I don’t think I ever use it to make actual calls.