Of Literary Television, and the Damage Done

Of Literary Television, and the Damage Done


If one accepts that “literary television,” with
its references, counter-references, allusions, character nuances, plot
mechanisms and other trappings typically associated with books, as demonstrated
admirably in shows ranging from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Mad Men, is a
part of the cultural landscape that must be reckoned with, then it’s only fair that, given a certain amount of
intellectual distance, one might look at where it is headed. If the sensitive
among us, and those knowledgeable about trends, and where they lead and
where they don’t lead, were to make such an assessment and then not feel a small
ounce of queasiness, as a result, then two things are true: all
is as it’s supposed to be, and we, as a “culture,” have a problem.

There’s no denying the pleasure to be had in stretching out
and watching an episode, or seven, of The Sopranos, listening to Jersey patois
deployed in comic and artful ways, or witnessing the unfolding of eccentric
storylines, or drifting through dream sequences from inside the head of a Mafia
boss. Similarly, entering the desert world of Breaking Bad, with its beautiful
cinematography, and its deranged but sincerely human storyline, or that of Mad
with its cool and yet also jabberingly active period-authentic dialogue, rich
with the thrill of the pursuit of money, provides excellent escape, even
absorption. But it is necessary, at a certain point, to consider what is
involved in that absorption. Any artistic work, be it a sonata or a
blockbuster, makes requirements of its viewers. On one level, of
course, there’s suspension of disbelief—the idea that anything that seems
improbable or unlikely within a story can be forgiven because the work in
question is fictional, not reportage—and that’s just the way storytellers do things. In the case of these shows,
though, something extra is required: a sense that one is, somehow, above the
story being watched, that the viewer is obviously not capable of the depths to
which the characters sink, nor would ever condone the illegal activities and
trespasses depicted. This breeds, with time, a sense of viewer toughness: Of course we can watch a human body being
dissolved in acid and then falling, in a bloody, gelatinous mess, through several
layers of wood, cement and sheetrock. It’s for the purpose of a larger story.
of course, we can watch advertising
executives drink themselves into a stupor at their desks. That all took place
long ago, and we would never, ever do such a thing today. Who could? And we certainly
wouldn’t cheat on our wives, either.
The sense is that the viewer, being
“above” the actions portrayed on screen, can digest an episode or two and then
move on, unhindered, unaffected. This toughness, though, is not necessarily
foolproof. You can’t absorb the “smart” part of a series—the cross-references,
the character layers, etc.—and not somehow absorb the part
of that series more commonly considered abhorrent. And if this is the case,
what’s the cumulative affect of all of this absorption, of all of these hours
spent binge-watching?

Take, for example, The
. Since the days of The
the Mafia, with its secrecy, its sudden violence, its strangely
lyrical mode of verbal expression (“Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes”) has
been seemingly easily digested by the culture at large—so great is the sense
that their comings and goings are separate from ours  that jokes can be easily made at their
expense and have, by and large, lost whatever “edge” they may once have had. To
“make someone an offer they can’t refuse” is a nearly meaningless expression at
this point in time. The Sopranos, as
has been widely discussed, placed viewers in an uneasy relationship with the
Mafia, and with crime in general. To accept the show, or to continue watching
it, would mean that the viewer would have to tread a highly quavery line: that
of accepting the insecurities of its central character, sentimental attachment
to ducks, panic attacks, troubled relationship with his mother, and all—and
rejecting that which one knew to be wrong, i.e. the violence, the extortion,
the bullying, the breaking of the laws of the land. And yet: it would be a rare
viewer who did not, at some point, if only for a second, surrender and suppose:
What if I were him? He has so much
authority. Those guys, they really know how to get things done.
And similar
sentiments, all adding up to a sense that, whatever the law and common morality
might say, Tony and his co-workers were an impressive bunch. Said feeling, once
had, would immediately be squelched. And the next episode would be queued.

Similarly, Breaking
required that one both sympathize with its central figure, Walter White, a man
stricken with cancer, and recognize the lawlessness of his actions: the
manufacture of meth, the sale of it for his own treatments and the sake of his family, the murders, the increasingly violent way
in which the day’s activities were completed, the wholesale deception of his
family (at first). The distancing required here, the sense of superiority, was
a bit more complex. After all, there seemed to be a specific reason for this journey,
on which all viewers were passengers, into a dark and forbidding place, both a
mental nadir and a socioeconomic pit, however complexly portrayed it might have
been—and this reason, personal preservation, was a rather primal one. Coupled
with this was the sense that, whatever his trespasses might be, White
was achieving power where he had previously had none, an irresistible tale,
psychological rags to riches, the victory of the underdog. Viewers were given plenty to marvel at besides
the story line: the camera work (which this publication has given
considerable attention), the literary references, the complexity of the plot,
the almost droll attitude the show’s creator took towards its development. This was enough to prevent direct engagement, for the most part, with the actual
content of the show—to somehow allow viewers to both dwell in the mind of a
criminal and step outside of it, to appreciate the form without grappling with
the content, and have that be enough. And yet was it? Wasn’t there some small part
of some viewers that might, every now and then, watch the violence on screen
and cheer inside, get some small charge from it? One might use words like devastating or horrific to describe it—but these words might be code for impressive or, sadly, enviable.

And currently there’s Mad Men, a show about a supremely
unredeemable set of ad executives, from a period in American history that was,
in many ways, horrible, acting viciously towards each other and their loved
ones—and yet doing so with such an immaculately clever script, such a
remarkably accurate set, in such stand-out wardrobes, again eerily faithful to
the period, and with such a natural sense of dynamism and such a crackling,
wired sense of the potential of human conversation that it is difficult, for its
millions of viewers to feel anything but rapt worship for it. This worship
translates into its critical reception; in its most skilled commentators, it
typically inspires flights of lyricism one would best reserve for a creative
writing class, a love letter, or a eulogy. The setting-aside one must do here
is, again, quite complex. To engage with the show on its terms—to follow Don
Draper from his false identity forward, through a career marred but also
invigorated by a healthy diet of booze, adultery, familial betrayal, and
narcissism—one has to both forgive him and separate one’s self from his
misdeeds, issue stern rebukes to the mischievous voice in one’s ear whispering,
What about that martini at lunch? Why not
have an affair? Who needs to tell the truth? How old-fashioned!
This is
where toughness comes in: one has to watch the horror-show of sexist, racist,
and classist attitudes circulating through the show’s office hallways and
remind one’s self of one’s natural distance, perspective, and self-respect—and
hope the reminder sticks. The show’s army of recappers all call Draper a
misogynist, a sexist, a pig, any name you might think of. But few of them
dismiss his ad pitches.

So in a sense, what we’re doing when we watch “literary
television” is pretending we’re not watching what we’re watching—we hold the
program at the level of commentary, of satire, seemingly preventing it from affecting us
in any way. The problem is, though, that the shows mentioned touch us in primal
ways, and so they can never be just commentary: mob hits, carnage, adultery,
rampant alcoholism, or what have you all move us, in small ways. We like to
pretend we’re tough enough to place everything, from the most maudlin part of a
TV show to the most horrific event in “offscreen” life, in perspective. And, in
fact, daily life demands that, increasingly. We keep up, steadily, with
whatever happens outside of ourselves: The text messages. The emails. The
Tweets. The Facebook posts. The Youtube videos. The gossip. The commentary on
the gossip. The TV shows. The commentary on the TV shows. And onwards, until
whatever happens in the “real” world is inconsequential until it becomes absorbed,
translated into a language we recognize, posted somewhere, with a photo, or better yet, slipped into a Tweet. In the current social context, a television drama
that asked its viewers to follow, for an extended period of time, a series of
events in the lives of well-drawn, well-acted characters who weren’t gangsters,
drug dealers, or ad executives from a decade largely unknown to said viewers wouldn’t
have much of a chance. Why? Because it would provide no opportunity to escape.
In a world in which escape—from the self, ultimately—is a goal shared by many, such
a show would be decidedly, for lack of a better word, unsexy. I will admit that
I’m happy to live in a time when such brilliant, staggeringly accomplished
shows as those described above are on television—and yet, at some times, I’m
also terrified at what lies ahead.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

4 thoughts on “Of Literary Television, and the Damage Done”

  1. This article is dumb. The author spends most of the article bemoaning morally complex characters, and then in the conclusion suddenly complains about the media distracting us from reality. The author hints vaguely that a show offering less escapism would be better. What does that even mean? It's necessary that the author to flesh out what a better alternative would be. As Petros said, there seems to be a strain of conservatism about sinful art corrupting society. In my opinion there's a much greater danger in having Good characters and Bad characters, and though the author doesn't say explicitly that he wants art to portray a clear-cut black and white morality, I don't know what other conclusion to draw.
    As for Mad Men, how could the author call the characters "supremely unredeemable"? It shocks me that reviewers can still go on about the lack of moral fiber in Mad Men's characters. Maybe in the first season when we weren't familiar with them, and the appeal of the show was more the sensational "It's a man's world" vibe. But anyone who's followed the show must feel the genuine warmth of these characters, and the warmth they have for each other. They're confused and imperfect, but you can't condemn them any further than that.


  2. This article criticizes the current TV landscape from a very limited viewpoint of audience identification. There are a few issues with this rationale. 1. This discussion has no specific relevance to TV, it could be applied to filmmaking in general. 2. The trend of negative or morally ambiguous characters is by no means a current development. 3. This appears to be a highly conservative approach. The logical leap from the fact that we identify with negative characters to the assumption that we are becoming increasingly desensitised to violence or promiscuity is a very precarious one. I fail to see how this statement is different from the very outdated opinion that sex and violence in movies corrupts audiences.


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