Beyond the Bubble: Television is the new book

by Andrea Nease | 3/2/15 6:45pm

Many people hold literature in high esteem — they praise the complexity of history’s great literary works, unreachable by any other sort of medium.

“Novels are characterized by their intimacy, which is extreme, by their scale, which is vast, and by their form, which is linguistic and synesthetic,” Mohsin Hamid, author of New York Times bestseller “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” said in a 2014 interview with The New York Times. “The novel is a kinky beast.”

The untouchable nature of the novel has more recently begun to weaken, however, allowing for a glimpse of the potential that comparable mediums could hold, such as television. If someone came up to me just five years ago and said that TV shows are the possible future of literature, I would have questioned their sanity, but nowadays, it no longer strikes me as ludicrous, ignorant or impossible.

The issue I encounter when trying to think critically about the literary merit of television shows is moving past our cultural ideas of TV. When I think of TV I think about watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” (2007) as a high school freshman, weekly episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” (2005) or season after season of “American Horror Story” (2011) on Netflix. I do not consider these shows literature — I consider them a way to pass time, a mindless entertainment that requires almost no effort on my part. These examples of shows are not the novelistic counterparts of TV literature, but that does not mean that some shows do not bear legitimate literary merit.

There are TV shows that offer such sophisticated writing and compelling novelistic elements that they make it hard to deny that television may be offering us the literature of the future. The most well-cited example of a TV show that is much more than 60 minutes of mind-numbing, stereotypical TV amusement is “The Wire” (2002-2008). The Guardian even likened “The Wire” to a modern day Charles Dickens’ novel, which seems completely over the top until you sit down and give the critically-acclaimed show a go.

Television used to be unwieldy in its attempt to create a gripping visual work that could touch upon the human condition in a way novels have for centuries. The development of the TV serial has resulted in the type of character depth and integrity that traditionally only books could provide. “The Wire,” for example, delves into the socio-economic disparity and educational inequality from which inner city schools typically suffer in such a culturally-relevant manner that it feels unfair to label David Simon’s creation as “just a show.”

Television’s success as a visual narrative has been rooted in its scale of time. Films are praised for their qualities as a visual production but, by nature, have certain limitations that television does not. A film must condense narrative in order to make a profit, because who is going to watch a 10- or 20-hour movie?

The TV serial does not condense because it doesn’t have to — the TV serial can continue infinitely, taking the idea of a full-length narrative from novels and expanding it. Shows such as “The Wire,” “Mad Men” (2007-2015), “Girls” (2012-present), “The Sopranos” (1999-2007) and “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009) are able to hold their own as literature because their writers have more time to create in-depth characters. They are craftsmen of a narrative art form in the age of technology — the age of visual literature.

The progressive maturity of the TV serial story line and quality of writing puts television in a place where no one can really deny its novelistic merit. Therefore the question is not if can we liken the TV serial to literature -— the question is whether or not we should.

Should we risk deprecating the prestige of the novel in an attempt to elevate this new medium of digesting well-prosed narrative? I think that the literary merit is there, and I think that television has evolved into this unexpected art that can have just as much emotional impact on us as a Jane Austen novel. I do not, however, find it fair to claim that TV is the sole future of literature.

It may be a part of the future, but the experience of reading a novel and watching a TV show — no matter how well-written — will never be the same. Their artistic elements, while comparable, are unique and praiseworthy in their own right and cannot be reduced to a competition of which is better “literature.” It is important that we do not lose sight of how impactful novels have been throughout our cultural development.

That being said, it is equally important to note the significant rise of the intellectually-driven and compellingly novelistic TV serial. Television can be studied as literature, but diminishing the value of traditional literature in comparison is secondary and unnecessary. I never thought I would see the day television was studied as a literary art form but I suppose you should never say never. Next term, English 53.34, called “The Wire,” will analyze the show as literature, reaffirming the evolution of the medium into something more than Saturday morning cartoons. The course offering shows that Dartmouth is taking the next step forward regarding in accepting nontraditional narratives, adding to the current offerings that include a highly popular course in graphic novels and another on Victorian children’s literature.

My mother once told me I would lose brain cells watching television, I dare say she was very wrong about that.