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?

3 thoughts on “are television shows the new novel?

  1. Arrested Development gets many many rentals at the vidstore.
    But you underestimate the “shared discussion” at the watercooler — game of thrones, in particular, benefits from people comparing notes (things mentioned in four words or so turn out to be important.)

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    1. Very good point. I did not consider the “water cooler” aspect of serialized television.

      Perhaps this is just a remark on my workplace, but I find reality shows, traditional sitcoms, police procedurals, and other such shows generate a lot of shared discussion as well.

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      1. The very best shows put enough clues inside them, that they can be deciphered at the watercooler. This is mainly a Japanese trope, as Japanese are more likely to all be watching the same show, and they dig mysteries a lot better than Americans seem to. (Look at Kiddy Grade).

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