A thought experiment on “Great Television”

To what extent are the “great” TV shows great television and to what extent are they just great stories, with great characters, etc.? That is to say, which ones contribute the most to television as a specific artform?

One way to get at this might be to ask whether something similar could be achieved if a show was converted to a novel. I think that a novel of Mad Men would be horrible, for instance, but a novel of The Wire would be a natural fit. Though The Wire is a little more self-consciously aestheticizing in its shots, etc., than one may initially realize, I think ultimately it’s like a serialized novel without the novel. It’s a great television series, but it’s not great specifically as television. Just throwing it out there, I think that Breaking Bad and Sopranos are very TV-specific, while maybe Deadwood isn’t.

Then there’s a question of whether we take the “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” slogan seriously. To what extent have certain shows moved beyond the restrictions of television to become a new genre of long-form visual narrative? All of the “greats” seem to challenge the episode format to some extent, as witnessed by the fact that events blend together when you marathon watch. In a way, you have to be watching specifically for the episode structure to catch it — meaning that it may primarily be a discipline for the writers, helping them to organize the material in a manageable way.

Perhaps the two poles are the purely episodic (which none of the “greats” are and virtually no contemporary drama is anymore) and the soap opera, which degenerates into a newspaper from a fictional universe. It’s a rare Game of Thrones episode that feels like a well-structured episode, for instance, so that it leans more toward the soap opera pole. I think the innovation of Mad Men is to realize that you can just put characters on the shelf without following them, then bring them back when you need them. Not every plot needs to be “ongoing” — we don’t need to know how Stan hooked up with the nurse girlfriend, when and why they broke up, etc., etc. The Wire and Sopranos move in that direction, but I don’t think they take it as far. Meanwhile, the small cast and setting of Breaking Bad and Deadwood prevent much experimentation in that regard, simply because it would make no narrative sense much of the time.

In short, some pretty random thoughts. I assume I’m reinventing the wheel to some extent. But all of this is partly by way of explaining why I think it’s basically not arguable whether Mad Men is the most artistically ambitious and artistically successful television show as a television show of all time — whether or not we agree, as we surely don’t, on its enjoyability, relevance, etc. And to some extent, I think that many of the ideological problems with the show — its limited representation, its “first world problems” focus, its objectively low-stakes setting — are features rather than bugs because they let the aesthetic come to the fore. Similar to how Melancholia basically has to take place in a setting of unimaginable wealth to “bracket out” all other problems.

2 thoughts on “A thought experiment on “Great Television”

  1. It’s hard not to define deviation from the narrative norms of the novel or long film as inferiority for TV. But I think MAD MEN makes a case for the narrative specificity of the medium. The (probably, yes, pretty bad) novel version of MAD MEN probably ends at “this is where I grew up.” But the TV version “goes on too long” and gets to what I at least think was the perfect ending.

  2. Reading this, it seems like the business of TV limits the quality of television. The writers first have to wonder about whether they’re going to get picked up for another season. Then, once they’re successful and that’s less of a concern, they have to generate a satisfying arc beyond their original idea. That has to wreak havoc on the ability to create something that would hold up as a continuous work that holds up to critical scrutiny when looking back on it. I understand some shows probably go in with a multiple season arc in mind from the get go, but aren’t they the exception?

    I’m sure there are reams worth of reasons they can’t/won’t do it, but it’d be nice if creators pitched the idea and were given a length of seasons to get the pitched show completed. Sure, some shows might end with some decent steam left, but I’m starting to wonder how many of even the best shows have more than three or four good seasons in them. Would that or some alternative system produce better TV? (I know the business of TV isn’t to produce quality TV, etc. etc.)

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