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TV Is for Dummies

Stop comparing television shows to great novels. They’ll never be as good.

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America, someone once said, is a nation where first-rate minds spend their time discussing second-rate movies. That person should’ve seen Netflix.

Ever since the video-on-demand service, and others like it, rearranged the rhythms of our viewing habits, television has ascended to a perch previously reserved exclusively for the furrow-browed and the ink-stained, the Tolstoys and the Henry Jameses and the Prousts. The writers. But walk among the young and cultured these days—the same types who, four or five decades ago, would’ve spent their Saturdays trading literary allusions, informed or otherwise—and all you’re likely to hear is talk of Don Draper and Walter White and that gentleman who killed the king and slept with his sister and was taken captive and whose name, like the names of all the mirthless whisperers who occupy HBO’s Game of Thrones, I’ve no intention of learning.

In and of itself, this new-found enthusiasm for television ought not bother anyone. On the contrary: It is a pleasure to see a medium that not too long ago seemed destined to wallow in a wilderness of Survivors and Joe Millionaires deliver such well-made, intricately plotted, and superbly acted shows. And it is a joy to see our nascent technologies release the medium from the clutches of the mediocre, allowing new talents and new channels of distribution to experiment and take risks. I deny none of this. I revel in it. And although not much of a watcher myself, I am thrilled for my friends and their TV sprees, chasing one episode with another and not stopping until their eyes throb. That is, I’m thrilled until someone mutters The Phrase.

The Phrase has many variations, but it’s always a version of this: “TV is so good now that it’s just as great as our great novels. Maybe even better!” The more discerning bother making specific cases—suggesting, for example, that David Simon is our modern-day Dickens or that Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, would’ve felt completely at home had he stumbled into a party at Turgenev’s and was seated right next to his apparent equal, Dostoyevsky.

It’s time to stop this madness. Let the unfashionable truth ring clear: No matter how good it is, it will never be more than just TV—an unparalleled distraction, crisply shallow, full of wondrous sounds and gorgeous furies that ultimately, in the ways that are truly vital and important to human life, signify nothing. It does not now, nor will it ever, meet the same sublime depths explored by the great novels. It is, quite simply, essentially inferior.

There are several arguments a writer could offer after having made such a sweeping statement, none of them particularly conducive to dialogue. And there are some things a reader might say in response, all equally combustible. Rather than devolve into abstractions or rebut by evoking the ghosts of great shows past, I want to ask you to instead take a few minutes and consider the elements.

In television narrative, any television narrative, the commandments are few and simple: Something must always be happening, for otherwise there would be little reason to tune in next week; and whatever’s happening must happen on screen, for this is a visual medium, and a shot of Walter White brooding in his kitchen isn’t quite as gratifying as a shot of Walter White shooting some guy in the head. Our new technologies, and the gluttonous viewing habits they’ve created, have given the medium some more room to play, to build, as it were, character. But the primary principles still apply: To keep us amused, a show, any show, has to parade a quick succession of spectacles, far exceeding the scope of thrills and woes that befall any ordinary or extraordinary person in real life. That’s the nature of entertainment.

Art is a different animal. In one of the most astonishing passages in an underrated novel, What Maisie Knew, now a major motion picture, Henry James gives us a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a small child. It’s longish, but well worth the effort. He writes:

It was on account of these things that mamma got her for such low pay, really for nothing: so much, one day when Mrs. Wix had accompanied her into the drawing-room and left her, the child heard one of the ladies she found there—a lady with eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled lines for musical notes on beautiful white gloves-announce to another. She knew governesses were poor; Miss Overmore was unmentionably and Mrs. Wix ever so publicly so. Neither this, however, nor the old brown frock nor the diadem nor the button, made a difference for Maisie in the charm put forth through everything, the charm of Mrs. Wix’s conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe; safer than any one in the world, than papa, than mamma, than the lady with the arched eyebrows; safer even, though so much less beautiful, than Miss Overmore, on whose loveliness, as she supposed it, the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn’t rest with quite the same tucked-in and kissed-for-goodnight feeling. Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.

Several things make this beautiful bit of writing not only a Jamesian master class, but also the first and last piece of evidence anyone should ever need if attempting an honest assessment of literature’s merits compared to other media—and I’m indebted to James Wood for his fine observations on this particular passage. First, in just 211 words, Henry James gives us three distinct vantage points through which to observe the world. We’ve the adult account of Mrs. Wix, the governess, as overheard by the child Maisie (“such low pay, really for nothing”); Maisie’s take on the adult account (“she knew governesses were poor”); and Maisie’s own take on Mrs. Wix (“safer than any one in the world”).

And then, the coup de grace, coming with one word: “embarrassingly.” Matilda, mentioned in the paragraph’s last sentence, is Mrs. Wix’s dead daughter, having passed away when she was not much older than Maisie herself. Maisie is confused; she is told the child is now in heaven, yet she was taken by Mrs. Wix to visit Matilda’s grave—the latter being “little” and “huddled,” a pairing of words with which James conveys more sorrow and misfortune than others have in entire volumes—in Kensal Green. For Matilda to be both up in the sky and down in the dirt of Kensal Green is, to Maisie’s young mind, embarrassing, as if it somehow reflects poorly on Mrs. Wix’s inability to explain Matilda’s whereabouts in a way that makes sense.

This is, to borrow the title of Wood’s book, how fiction works. TV, by contrast, works by having some guy shoot another guy, or shoot another guy and then talk about it with his shrink, or cheat on his wife, or break the law. Even when it delves deeper than ever before into the machinations of morality—as Breaking Bad, again, does very well—it is only free to consider these questions by having its protagonist always moving, always doing, always on the make.

Whatever else serious art accomplishes, it is committed to giving us a report of our condition, as idiosyncratic and insufferable and immensely complex as it is. It tells us something worth knowing about what it’s like to be human, to think and to feel and to be. Like all the great novels, What Maisie Knew performs that operation with a small and sharp scalpel, with insights and emotions cascading from every minute observation and every word. Breaking Bad approaches the same procedure with a sledgehammer; it titillates more than it truly moves, because its basic building blocks are not elastic words but cumbersome actions. It’s all it could ever do: It’s only a TV show.

As the summer begins and television seasons end, we—sometimes referred to, occasionally without irony, as the people of the book—might consider stepping away from the amorous ad men and witty dwarves and murderous crime kingpins and instead read something. Like a fine meal, it takes longer, and it lacks the binge’s euphoric high of having consumed a lot of something very sweet very fast. But it leaves you with the unparalleled satisfaction of having exercised your fundamental rights as a human being: the right to think, the right to reflect, the right to contain multitudes.

***

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Natan79 says:

Very nice and thoughtful article, with something genuinely important to say – a welcome change from Liel Leibovitz.

nicholae says:

the writer has clearly never experienced a television show like, say, “six feet under.” the border between art and entertainment is more porous than he seems to understand.

dizzyizzy says:

I would have appreciated this article more had the author not chosen the antisemitic Henry James for his model novelist. But more, his is a typical Frankfurt-school type attack on mass culture, which such as Adorno and Marcuse et al, held responsible for the rise of Nazism. May I recommend a person of Jewish extraction who actually wrote popular novels that appeal to millions of non-aesthetes? And she was writing in the tradition of the great sweeping naturalist novels of the 19th century. See http://clarespark.com/2011/01/12/ayn-rands-we-the-living/. “Ayn Rand’s We The Living.”
Leibovitz’s article might have been seen as unfortunate by Walter Benjamin, whose take on mass media expresssed in “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction” has been turned upside down by trendy New Left academics (Jameson and Greenblatt for example). Leibovitz paints with strokes that are too broad. There is crappy television, and occasionally a series that is well-written and that makes demands on the viewer.

Leibovitz is absolutely wrong. While he doesn’t explicitly say whether or not he has viewed the extraordinary epic “The Wire” (I suspect not), many of us who teach literature to university students know that this work is every bit as rich and complex as a novel. Indeed, from my perspective that layered and intricate achievement with its deep revelations of American character, dysfunctional and otherwise, warrants consideration as our “great American novel.”

Sandy Perlmutter says:

I really enjoyed this essay! I don’t see how anyone can defend the “depth” of a TV program, even though I enjoy them too. And using Ayn Rand as an example of idea-filled writing is ludicrous. You don’t have to love Henry James, or his writing, to appreciate masters of English prose like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, who wrote for the masses and will live on as long as English is read.

    dizzyizzy says:

    If you haven’t read Ayn Rand (born Alyssa Rosenbaum) you have no idea as to her popular appeal. Without the imprimatur of a literary establishment, her three major novels sold millions of copies to the great unwashed. Anyway, I mentioned her to irritate the social democrats who post here. I continue to wonder about Henry James as an example, a very conservative, alienated fellow, who was an expatriate too. But the English majors swear by him. And James Joyce. As for the rest of the novel writers, bring up Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (his masterpiece) and you might have an argument. Such a wild book could never be translated to television, not with our current media establishment. I’m surprised that no one mentioned Cormac McCarthy, another very big talent. I wrote about both him and Mark Twain here: http://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/. “Link to Cormac McCarthy and Mark Twain blogs.” Twain is more problematic than most people think.

Eric Schulmiller says:

Sometimes I get the feeling Liel just enjoys being the “One Who Knocks” – not in a Walter White kind of way, but in an Andy-Rooney-meets-James-Wood kind of way. Saying TV is inferior to novels is like saying modern dance is inferior to sculpture. Just because TV is a kinetic medium doesn’t mean it is not equally good (in its own way) at helping people experience the universal stories which give meaning to our lives.

Son_of_J says:

The headline does not really match the content of the polemic. As far as the content, whether a tv show is as “good” as a novel is entirely subjective, but as another commenter mentioned, it is very difficult to compare art across different media. I think when people casually say that a tv show is as good or better than a novel, they are generally speaking in terms of character development. As far as the headline, that tv is for dummies, that is just an old, outdated saw that, if it ever applied, certainly does not apply to the tv shows the author cites. Today’s tv is vastly more complex than the shows that ran from the start of tv through the 1990s, and vastly more intellectually stimulating. There is even a book — Everything Bad Is Good For You — that argues that the complexity of today’s tv and video games does not lend itself to passive consumption and actually helps intellectual development. http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Bad-Good-You-Actually/dp/1594481946

Son_of_J says:

The headline does not really match the content of the polemic. As far as the content, whether a tv show is as “good” as a novel is entirely subjective, but as another commenter mentioned, it is very difficult to compare art across different media. I think when people casually say that a tv show is as good or better than a novel, they are generally speaking in terms of character development. As far as the headline, that tv is for dummies, that is just an old, outdated saw that, if it ever applied, certainly does not apply to the tv shows the author cites. Today’s tv is vastly more complex than the shows that ran from the start of tv through the 1990s, and vastly more intellectually stimulating. There is even a book — Everything Bad Is Good For You — that argues that the complexity of today’s tv and video games does not lend itself to passive consumption and actually helps intellectual development. http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Bad-Good-You-Actually/dp/1594481946

corey949 says:

Mr Liebowitz seems to be having a good time showing us poor low-lifes how wrong we are to appreciate game-changing works like The Wire. Our pleasure seems to trigger his inner Grand Inquisitor who’s eager to convert us the the Gospel of James. He reminds me of a brilliant curmudgeon of an English teacher from my high school days who felt that world literature had been in decline since Dante completed the Divine Comedy.

Happy to see the wise replies of Eric Schulmiller and Ranen Omer-Sherman. I believe that the seismic shift in the quality and context of TV in the last few years is an inspiring counter-balance to the more common indicators of the decline of American intelligence and taste. The latest novelistic triumph from The Sundance Channel, “Rectify” has raised the bar even higher, taking the medium into areas no one dreamed it could. Given the sad state of conventional publishing, it’s pretty clear why young, passionate writers would look to HBO, IFC, AMC, FX as outlets for their work. TV of the cable denomination has embraced complex narrative, moral and philosophical subtexts, characters often marginalized and underrepresented, and is not overly concerned with manners and or propriety. We haven’t seen anything like it since the golden age of live TV in the early fifties.

corey949 says:

Mr Liebowitz seems to be having a good time showing us poor low-lifes how wrong we are to appreciate game-changing works like The Wire. Our pleasure seems to trigger his inner Grand Inquisitor who’s eager to convert us the the Gospel of James. He reminds me of a brilliant curmudgeon of an English teacher from my high school days who felt that world literature had been in decline since Dante completed the Divine Comedy.

Happy to see the wise replies of Eric Schulmiller and Ranen Omer-Sherman. I believe that the seismic shift in the quality and context of TV in the last few years is an inspiring counter-balance to the more common indicators of the decline of American intelligence and taste. The latest novelistic triumph from The Sundance Channel, “Rectify” has raised the bar even higher, taking the medium into areas no one dreamed it could. Given the sad state of conventional publishing, it’s pretty clear why young, passionate writers would look to HBO, IFC, AMC, FX as outlets for their work. TV of the cable denomination has embraced complex narrative, moral and philosophical subtexts, characters often marginalized and underrepresented, and is not overly concerned with manners and or propriety. We haven’t seen anything like it since the golden age of live TV in the early fifties.

Mark Burgh says:

Okay, old top, Liel, what about all the great dramas, like Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chekov & O’Niell? They’re not novels, but are full great characters. Novels are good for language and inner thoughts, but great TV Dramas are equally good as stage plays. Why use James’s prissy little writing? Try James Joyce instead. He writes of the entirety of the human experience with a complexity that makes James look like the inconsequential writer that he is.

aseroff says:

Automobiles are for Dummies
Stop comparing cars to great horse carriages. They’ll never be as good.

USNK2 says:

What a relief. FX is running repeats of “Justified”, Shakespeare in every way, set in Harlan County, Kentucky.

    Nathan Longhofer says:

    If you want modern Shakespeare check out Deadwood, though since you like Justified you probably don’t need to be told

david wilson says:

Three things:

1. Liebovitz plays video games instead of watching television. His choice.
2. He is here on a mission to teach us Americans about our own popular culture. Being an Israeli of the intellectual persuasion, he has special powers of insight into the embedded symbols and meaning that eludes us.
3. There is an old Jewish joke about Henry Kissinger, a tailor, a bolt of fine cloth, and Israel. The obverse is true here: In NYC Liel, you’re not such a big man.

    Natan79 says:

    Watching TV rots your brain. It increases your risk of Alzheimer. Reading doesn’t, on the contrary.

    Nathan Longhofer says:

    I’ve never heard that joke please share

      david wilson says:

      Someone gives Henry Kissinger a bolt of beautiful cloth. He goes to a tailor on the Lower Eastside in NYC. The tailor says he doesn’t have enough cloth to make a full suit. He can make a pair of pants and a vest. K leaves NY for London. Goes to a tailor at Saville Row. Tailor says he doesn’t have enough cloth for a full suit. He can make 2 pairs of pants. K leaves for Tel Aviv. He goes to a tailor who says he can make a suit with a jacket, 2 pairs of pants, and a vest. K is confused and relates his experiences in NY and London. Asks the tailor why that is so. The tailor responds: “In Israel Mr. Kissinger, you are not such a big man.”

        Ian Grey says:

        This is the babbling of a frightened person who knows his whole everything is walking dead.

        TV does everything a novel can do–and it does it better and with endless possibility.

        It does silence and interior dialogue with sound design, with music, with song, with images within images. And they all reflect on each other in an endless semiotic dance that wraps around the multi-narratives in a shows’ center which moves according to no law but that of the artist collective creating this astonishing thing.

        Let the scold here sputter: we get to bath in endless beauty, wit, and terror, we get to enjoy our Technicolor classic Hollywood vampire musicals, Shakespearean westerns, intergalactic Iraq war meditations, and our shows that prove the scold utterly wrong, whether it’s the profound ‘nothing happening’ of In Treatment or the more profound ‘nothing happening’ of Enlightened.

        But it’s not the scold’s job to be accurate or even make sense. It’s to kvetch. Job well done.

          david wilson says:

          I’m glad you brought up the TV series “In Treatment.” I’d add “Homeland” to the short list and note that these two series are based on Israeli originals–popular here and there.

          The scold has a different agenda and prefers a different entertainment medium.

Bruce Baron says:

Television is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator because it is for the most part a commercial venture that must appeal to the masses. The likelihood of finding great art or complex themes is also unlikely in this genre. A work of art, a well-crafted fiction, can take the time to explore the creator’s vision without the push to be commercial. http://www.oldtestamentwellness.com

dyscostic . says:

lol this is silly… have you ever participated in discussions with those new fangled youths and their television shows in lieu of aeschylus? people read tons into the subtleties and walter white brooding around and the not clumsy grandstanding shooting stuff. when the lily of the valley was first mentioned there was tons of speculation about whether it was a throwaway reference or building to something. when mike the cleaner coughed conspicuously in season 4 dropping off his granddaughter everywhere from avclub to alan sepinwalls podcast was talking about whether it was chekovs cough or just a flub. people picked up that the episode titles in season 2 for the episodes with the cold open of the bear floating in the pool spelled out “737” “down” “over” “ABQ” which was a big understated foreshadowing of what actually went on to happen.

for any discussion of the really good shows, there’s hella “insights and emotions cascading from every minute observation and every word.” sucks that you can only pay attention to the ‘splosions or whatever but it’s there. heck just the music/scoring/sound design on breaking bad could be analyzed as a whole dimension of emotion novels will always necessarily lack.

Damian Lanigan says:

A TV show could express that James paragraph in three seconds flat

Nathan Longhofer says:

I am reminded of the musical contest between Pan and Apollo. After both have performed the judges cannot decide who performed better, so they call for a second round. This time they require that the performers play with their instruments upside down, and sing while they play. Apollo, with his lyre, is still able to make beautiful music, but Pan, with his pipes, cannot produce any sound at all, nor can he accompany himself since his lungs are occupied.

Comparing any two artistic mediums is exactly that sort of rigged contest. Of course you can do things in a novel, particularly getting inside a characters head, that are much harder on TV, or film, or stage drama. This is like criticizing a novel because rather than giving me a picture of what is described I have to make the picture myself out of words! The contest is rigged.

FirstWorldProblems says:

Cinema is art. Literature is art. Both are equally worthy. Both are capable of everything you claim to be requisites for high art. Breaking Bad is cinema on tv. You are narrow minded.

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TV Is for Dummies

Stop comparing television shows to great novels. They’ll never be as good.