A lot of ink was spilled (if bandwidth counts as ink) over Ryan McGee’s post “Did The Sopranos Do More Harm Than Good?”, where he raises the question of whether heavily-serialized, “novelistic” TV has become such an all-pervasive standard that it can lead to weak individual episodes and half-baked serial stories that don’t go anywhere. (Or, as I sometimes put it: after the writers of Nash Bridges went off and did Lost, even the shows that would be better off being Nash Bridges tried to be Lost.)
Like others who have responded, I don’t think The Sopranos is the show to blame for this, if “blame” is the right word, and it probably isn’t. The Sopranos arrived on TV in a time when broadcast network drama had already become very serialized — as John Wells explained in a 1995 article that may have introduced the term “showrunner” to the public, the modern showrunner role in drama came about because TV dramas were too complex to be written by freelancers. And both The Sopranos and Six Feet Under were more reliant on standalone episode stories than almost any subsequent HBO drama.
I’ve worried about the decline of the standalone episode in TV drama. (Not to mention the fact that shows often seem to announce in advance that they’re only doing standalone episodes because they think that’ll pull in some newbie viewers; you don’t get good episodes that way, you get them because you like them and the writers pitched some great stories, like they did on The X-Files.) But I would not blame one particular show or group of shows, and again, “blame” is the wrong word. And it’s probably not online culture, either, because this is part of a process that started before most writers knew about the internet.
In some ways it may come down to the fact that U.S. TV drama has gone from a freelancer culture to a staff writing culture. (So has comedy, but for various reasons, TV comedy storytelling hasn’t changed as much over the years.) Everything about the way TV drama is written tends to drive it towards more serialization; even if the show starts out with a standalone episode structure, the existence of broader storylines — and the fact that almost everyone on the show knows what those basic storylines are — winds up driving the selection of individual episodic plots, which in turn can cause the individual episode plots to fall away entirely. Shows where freelancers come in and pitch story ideas for that one week are going to be less serialized, for better or for worse.
Overall, for better, I suspect. Which is an awkward way of segueing to one of the many responses to McGee’s piece, this post by Richard Lawson was criticized by a lot of people for seeming to imply that taking TV seriously makes TV less fun. I think that can actually be a problem on a personal level. The necessity to talk about what everyone else is talking about, or keep up with the shows that are cool, can make TV viewing seem like work, and if entertainment feels like work, there’s a problem. But it’s unfair to say that, as a general matter, it’s “just TV’ or that it’s making TV less enjoyable: there’s nothing wrong with taking TV seriously, any more than movies or comics or other media that became more ambitious as they aged, and of course there’s no doubt that most people talk seriously about TV, or argue about what’s going to happen on a show, because it’s fun.
But I do understand the impulse to miss “fun” TV drama as TV drama becomes more serious and less cheesy with every passing year. It reminds me a bit of Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art and the Movies, her 1969 manifesto from Harper’s magazine where she wrote about the trashy pleasures of movies, which to her were closer to what movies were all about than some acclaimed recent movies that she considered pretentious and boring, “using ‘artistic techniques’ to give trash the look of art.” (The movies she picked to hate on in this essay were Petulia and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so to enjoy the essay you’ll probably have to accept that you may not agree with her on that part of it.) Being also opposed to the French idea that trashy American movies could be re-interpreted as great works of art, she argued that true art in movies is just an extension of the basic pleasure of moviegoing — finding moments of beauty, truth or individuality in a flawed work. When a movie is a work of art, it carries us along that way for most of the picture; “It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings.” The moviemakers Kael would champion in the ’70s — like Coppola, Spielberg, Altman and especially her friend Brian DePalma — were often the ones whose movies were messy, scattershot and unafraid of American movie trashiness, but who carried the trashiness farther into those new meanings.
This way of looking at movies was heavily influenced by the era Kael grew up in, when watching an American movie could abound in almost private pleasures: finding moments of greatness or transcendence in a lot of movies that were basically just assembly-line studio product. Kael, who gravitated to brash Hollywood entertainments rather than self-important Oscar bait, didn’t believe that the brash Hollywood entertainments were serious art (and, as I said, reacted scornfully to the critics who later went around finding serious artistic purpose in many of those films). But she believed that there were moments that rose to the level of art, especially from the actors, who could sometimes achieve glorious things in the middle of an otherwise mediocre movie. She lists a few of them throughout the essay.
And the way she watched movies reminds me very much of the way American TV drama fans would watch TV from the ’60s right up through the ’90s. Remember John Gregory Dunne taking to The New Republic to say he’d found a great piece of storytelling, and it was a Gunsmoke episode? He didn’t say Gunsmoke was a great series or that it would enlighten us every week. He felt he had found a diamond in the rough. That was the way people felt when they found a great performance by a special guest villain on a TV show, or an unusual camera angle, or a particularly quirky script (like any of Stephen J. Cannell’s script contributions to his own shows). American dramatic television was formulaic factory work, but there were diamonds in the rough, private pleasures and beauties, if you were a fan. Even the best dramas were not very consistent from week to week, but sudden great moments were unforgettable.
American TV post-Sopranos has been very much where movies were in the ’60s and ’70s. I think the ’60s may be the best parallel. You have an art form with tremendous artistic potential, but one that has always been held back in some ways by commerce, and also by incredibly heavy censorship (which is an outgrowth of commerce: movies were censored so they could play in every theatre in the country and the world; TV was censored so no advertiser would object to buying time). You have the profits shrinking for the increasingly-out-of-touch studio/network system, with occasional big hits but lots of huge flops, and a general sense that they don’t know what the public wants. And you have many more choices — foreign and independent films then, cable now — available to the public. These new choices are rarely blockbuster hits, but they make money by appealing to segments of a fragmented audience, and often are more zeitgeist-y than the big bland hits. In the ’60s, it’s doubtful a that more Americans went to see a Fellini movie than That Touch of Mink, but a lot more people were arguing about the Fellini picture, just as a lot more people are really engaged with Mad Men despite the relatively small number of people who watch it.
Movies even have a parallel with the early “Golden Age of Television” in the silent era, which was often considered a lost paradise, a time when directors had more freedom and large corporations hadn’t yet turned movies into a factory. (James Agee was one of many critics who felt that American sound movies had never really lived up to the silent classics.) In U.S. television, similarly, the ’50s was considered a lost opportunity, a period when TV promised to do challenging art, only to be rolled over by the Hollywood machine and its formulaic Westerns and cop shows. The Sopranos era has been about American TV drama slowly living up to the artistic potential that people saw in the Playhouse 90 era, just as the ’60s and ’70s were about shedding the extreme studio control and extreme censorship that had made sound movies something less than “grown-up.”
But there’s a lot of love for old movies, and indeed, the arrival of the New Hollywood in the ’70s coincided with a huge wave of nostalgia for heavily-censored, unrealistic movies of the ’30s and ’40s. Sometimes movies with seriousness of purpose, movies that advertised and celebrated how adult they were, could seem like work. We’ve all seen movies like that and it doesn’t matter which ones they are (to Kael, 2001 was that kind of soulless movie; for many people, including a lot of the people who made it a box-office hit, it obviously was not). The experience of seeing something that aspires to leave trash behind and be grown-up art can be wonderful – if it works for us. If it doesn’t work for us, it can leave us with a longing for the genuine pleasures and insights to be found in cheesy entertainment at its best. It’s about season 1 Buffy or a particularly good crime procedural or Western episode or a good Lost Girl or a big Jack Webb monologue or Jack Ging turning up in an unexpected place or whatever happened to stand out for us while watching “casual” TV. We all have our favourites, and they’re like finding a great dance routine in an old B-musical movie: a flash of art in a cheesy setting, which can sometimes feel like a form of artistry.
Is it artistry? Of course. It’s just artistry within very narrow limits, similar to the limits in which Silver Age comic books worked. And just like Silver Age comic fans can discover greatness in a particularly smart variation on the formula or a particularly superb artist working within the house style (like Curt Swan on Superman), Dark Age TV fans see the variations on the formula, the memorable episodes, the great performances, even the serious issues addressed. None of this adds up to The Wire, but it’s hard for me to understand people who say that after The Wire, they can’t watch a formula cop show. (I hear this all the time, by the way. Saying “after X, I can’t go back to Y” – another one is “after Arrested Development, I can’t watch a show with a laugh track” – is the new version of “I don’t own a TV.”) It’s like saying you can’t enjoy a great Batman story like “Joker’s Millions” after reading “The Killing Joke”: sure, the latter is closer to a serious work of art, but the former has interesting things to say as long as you don’t expect to be surprised by who wins and who loses. That was never the point.
So of course TV drama has been enriched and improved by The Sopranos and Lost and the rest of it. And these shows do tend to have more of what we think of as serious artistic purpose: real ongoing development that doesn’t snap everybody back to square one, episodes that can’t be shown out of order, a refusal to spell everything out for viewers who might not get it, a lack of unrealistically squeaky-clean good guys. Some of these issues are unique to certain media (like how episodic or serial a show should be) but we usually instinctively know ambition when we see it – and respect it, because without genuine ambition, a medium will stagnate and shrivel. But I do think that you can’t make a binary division between trashy TV with nothing to say and ambitious TV that enlightens us. If a show feels like work to get through, the problem might be that you’re watching it wrong, but then again it might be the show. And depending on the situation, you might learn more from those little flashes of greatness in a formula show. And of course, many of the greatest shows of recent years live right on the edge between art and trash, novel and soap opera, much as Kael’s favourite filmmakers tended to have one foot in art film and another in exploitation film.
I don’t think taking TV seriously has made TV less fun, and I assume that anyone who watches a show all the way through is enjoying it. (If someone watches a show for a while and doesn’t enjoy it, he or she should probably stop. Writing about TV, paid or unpaid, is work; watching it shouldn’t be.) I do think that just as there was a nostalgia for “fun” movies, which eventually led to throwback films like Star Wars and a return to Old Hollywood escapism, there is some consciousness of the (not entirely lost, but not as prevalent as they were) pleasures of “fun” TV, and of picking out the great moments in a formula setting. Just as real life doesn’t always have clear-cut good and bad guys, television doesn’t always concentrate the greatness in the shows that aspire to greatness. And sniffing out the greatness, finding the diamonds in the rough, is a pleasure that will never go away from any medium, particularly one that balances as many different demands – and therefore is so far away from ever achieving artistic perfection – as TV.