In Praise of Television


In Praise of Television

Even now I run into people who boast that they never watch television, as if this were a badge of intellectual sophistication. They’ll readily discuss movies, however, movies they’ve watched, movies they consider brilliant, movies they plan to see. Film has earned respect as an art form, and this respect endures, even though sophisticated, artistic storytelling can rarely be found in movies anymore; in fact, literary storytelling has moved largely to television.

When you think of the great films of the twentieth century, you think of directors: Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Coppola, Wilder…When you cast your mind back over the pre-eminent television shows of recent times (the last fifteen years or so), you think of the writers as the creators. Deadwood was done “by” David Milch.  The Wire was David Simon’s work.  Breaking Bad is Vince Gilligan’s. Who directed these shows? Different folks. Don’t know who they were. Don’t care.

Technology is what moved storytelling to television, I think, and in so doing , changed the nature of those stories. To my mind, technology has been doing this ever since storytelling began.

Before writing was invented—and yes, writing is a technology—stories were created and delivered orally. So storytelling was always visceral, always personal. Whether it was a grandmother telling a story to one child or a bard telling a story to a group of warriors, the storyteller and the audience were in the same room, they knew each other, the storytelling was a personal interaction, and the telling of the story was not distinct from the creation of the story. They were the same act. Kind of like when improvisational jazz musicians get cooking.

Of course people retold stories they’d heard. But when someone retold a story,  they did so from memory. Whatever didn’t strike them dropped away forgotten; whatever resonated for them got reinforced, embellished. As stories were retold, collective memory shaped and sifted them, so that they came to reflect deep themes common to the people who told them. They were myths. They represented the spirit and genius of a people, not some single talented artist.

And since they were transmitted orally, stories featured elements that made them easier to remember. The stories we still know of from earliest times were rhythmic, they rhymed, and they had recurring phrases, images, and lines. That’s why Homer’s seas are always wine-dark.

Once writing was invented, however, memory lost its pre-eminent role in storytelling.  Once stories could be recorded, they could be reworked, revised, edited, polished. Writers created stories with no audience present and released them only when they struck the individual writer as perfect (or good enough). This eventually made possible a story like The Tale of Genji, a tale full of interwoven plots and subplots, written in the 11th century Japan by a Lady Murasaki.

The invention of movable type in Europe,  used only to disseminate the Bible at first, eventually nourish the novel as an art form, and the fact that they were to be published had consequences.  The anticipated readers of these complex works were not just the writer’s friends, family, real-life acquaintances, and close social circles, but anonymous figures dispersed across a whole society, which inspired novelists to attempt sweeping epics that brought to life a whole social universe. Think of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Think of Austin’s novels of English gentry life. Think of Dickens—who can even hear his name without picturing crowded, filthy London alleys and guys with spectacles perched on their noses, in dusty shops, guys with names like Higginbotham and Crabsworthy. In the age of Stendhal and Dostoevsky and Melville and Twain and Hawthorne, no one questioned that the core function of a novel was to tell a story. This was assumed. Everything else in the novel—the language, the descriptive details, the social information about time and place—were there in service to story. Everybody knewthis. For sophisticated readers,  better language, better description, greater insights were valuable because they made the story greater, deeper.

Then movies were invented. Moviemakers soon came to realize that they could deliver stories in their medium with an immediacy, power, and popularity novels could not touch—movies could give even the uneducated the aura of a place, the look of a character, the costumes, the sound of human voices, the vivacity of action. As a vehicle for storytelling, therefore, movies began to crowd out novels much as the invention of photography rendered painting obsolete as a vehicle for portraiture–and eventually called into question the role of painting as a vehicle for recording realistic images at all. It’s true that paintings could be as accurate and realistic as photographs, but painter needed long training and then had to put in painstaking effort to achieve a result that anyone with a camera could reasonably duplicate.

Painters, therefore, began to explore aspects of the viusal image that photography could not capture. They began to paint not what their eyes saw but what their minds felt, their impressions of light for instance, the symbolism vested in images, their own psychic states, and then abstractions that existed only as paint, and then brushstrokes and then paint itself.

Novels went through a similar evolution. Vivid, gripping stories were so much easier to tell with movies and those stories form were so accessible to such a wide audience, that the literary novel began to emphasize the things movies could not do.  In the end, the most irreproducible of those elements proved to be pure language. In the literary novel, therefore, language gained an exaggerated importance, casting a shadow over storytelling.

Recently, I read the transcript of a panel discussion inwhich a bunch of literati were discussing what set a literary novel apart from a commercial novel. One respondent summed up the sense of the group when he said: “We read a literary novel for the language. We read a commercial novel for the story.” This is a common critical opinion nowadays, I think, but Dickens would be amazed to hear that his books were worth reading mainly for the language, not the story. So would Dostoevsky. So would Shakespeare.

This absurd idea led one writer (I forget her name) to write an absurd piece in Salon arguing, as if it were necessary,  that Tolstoy’s language was good enough he could be considered literary. The thing is, she felt that Tolstoy was a literary novelist,  but she found this hard to reconcile with the fact that his language, when she looked at it closely, did nothing to draw attention to itself. It was kinda’ straightforward, kinda’ plain. He just told his story, it seemed.  So she went to acrobatic lengths to prove that his language was better than it sounded, gymnastics that seem totally unnecessary. Is Tolstoy’s language masterful? Yes, because it delivers his story to us fresh and whole.  If Anna Karenina move us to passion and leaves us deeply shaken—as it does—then we know it’s a work of literature.

The venerable idea that the function of language in fiction is to deliver story has been so obscured, however, that self-consciously literary fiction has made an idol of language, a fetish. In today’s literary novels, it often exists on its own, separate from any story it may be telling. In fact, in “literary” magazines, these days, the language is often what a work of fiction is about. By descending into this abyss, literary fiction has inched itself into much the same cultural space as opera occupies–for let us not forget that in Mozart’s day, opera was an accessible art form enjoyed by the hoi polloi as readily as by the intellectual elite.

But if literary fiction is no longer the realm of story,  where did story go? It went to the movies, dude! Some of the greatest fictional works of the 20th century are in celluloid form. From Citizen Kane to Casablanca, from Les Enfants de Paradis to The Seventh Seal, from Juliet of the Spirits to The Big Sleep, from High Noon to Silverado–well: the list goes on. And on.

But technology keeps moving on, too, like some blind worm, and as it moves it cannot help but change the way we deliver stories, which in turn reshapes the nature of the stories we tell.  Movies were riding high and then television was invented, and television could deliver the storytelling in the same aural/visual form as movies, with the same immediacy, the same accessible mélange of  images,  voices, music and sound effects, motion and emotion as the movies, but people could enjoy this brew without leaving their couch. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad is beside the point. It was seductive.

There was, however, one thing television could not do and still cannot. Television could not surround and engulf the audience with the experience of a story. It could not offer a 400 foot screen that curved around the entire room, filled an auditorium with Dolby sound, and pulled the viewer into an imaginary space.

And as television took its audience share, movies began exploring these unique capacities of the medium.  In its day, I remember, 2001, A Space Odyssey was a revelation to movie-goers and not just the ones who were tripping on acid.  Today, when I look at that movie, I find that it has a pretty lean story—in fact, hardly any story at all. People didn’t go that movie for the story; they went for that last half hour, when the ship is sucked into a vortex and viewers feel themselves viscerally rushing through unimaginable pyrotechnics in space. Who cares about the story ? You’re right there!

A few years later, the first Superman movie came out and the tagline for it on all the posters was: “You will believe a man can fly.” It worked because people were now going to the movies to believe they could fly and they had come to trust that movies could give them the experience.  That’s  an enjoyment that has nothing to do with storytelling.

Interestingly enough, right around that time, television happened onto the idea of the multi-character season-long series. The first one that hooked me was The Lou Grant Show, about life at a newspaper. Then came Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. With these shows, television discovered something it could do that movies couldn’t. Television could deliver a sustained experience that wove a fictional universe in much the same way as the 19th century novel.

In George Elliot’s Middlemarch, there was no single protagonist. The story wove the trajectories of many lives into a single fabric:  the idealistic Ms. Brooks,  the ambitious Dr. Lydgate, the corrupt banker whose name I’ve forgotten; the scholar Casaubon who was writing “The Key to All Mythologies”,  the hypocritical do-gooding, landowner Mr. Brooks, and many others. All these lives interwoven added up to a sense of a place and a time: the village of Middlemarch at one exact moment in history.

Well, Hill Street Blues was the same. It wasn’t about any single character, it was about the many characters who peopled a place, a time, and an institution—the police department of a big American city in the 1970s. And since the show was on week after week, the writers had compass to reveal the characters’ and trace their changes, not all at once, but in the course of ongoing events, the way we find out about people in the real world. This is the essence of the pleasure that we find in storytelling.

Unable to compete, movies gravitated ever more toward the things movies could uniquely do:  making viewers believe a man can fly. Consider the much-acclaimed Inception, which was about people entering the dreams of others, and then into the dreams of people in the dreams and so on down, level after level.  As a moive-goer, no matter which level of dream you were in,  your actual experience was mainly of rushing, falling, crashing, flying, burning, shooting, and being shot at. There was a story buried in there somewhere, but so buried I could barely get involved in it.  I came out  believing a man could fly but unable to remember why I should care.

Artists working in television, meanwhile, developed ever further the sort of storytelling for which television was uniquely suited . Early, clumsy efforts, like Hill Street Blues  (nearly unwatchable today) spawned true masterworks of American fiction such as the five seasons of The Wire, Deadwood, the second season of Justified, the third season of Damages (is there in all of literature a more disturbing portrait of an ordinary human being turning into a monster?) not to mention Game of Thrones and many more. You still find a well-told story in the movies once in a while: last season’s Silver Linings Playbook was an example; you still sometimes see a literary novel masterfully telling a story; but for the most part, in our time, storytelling has moved from the printed page and the big screen to the little screen.

And just as literary fiction and opera crowded themselves into cultural corners, so movies are in danger of rendering themselves a niche-experience through their over-reliance on sensurround special-effects wizardry. Once story has been sucked out of movies, people will stop taking much of an interest in them, whereupon, I predict, one big blockbuster after another will lose money because, in the end, what human beings crave is story.  (Besides, the total sensory immersion that movies provide will be available even more fully from electronic games with 3-D smart helmets.)


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