Friday, June 14, 2013

How HBO has ruined me

As I mentioned before starting on my co-posts on this season of Game of Thrones, I came to the conclusion a while ago that it is time to retire this blog. I started it when I moved to St. John’s; it was then a way of letting friends and family know about how I was faring, and a place to record my impressions of both Newfoundland and life as a newly-minted full time professor.

Eight years later, St. John’s is home, I am more than settled in my life here, and, having received tenure two years ago, I am in the midst of the inevitable transformation from arrogant young turk to querulous old fart (hopefully the full transformation is still years off, but I do find myself gravitating more toward tweed than I ever have).

All of which tells me I’m now quite overdue to retire An Ontarian in Newfoundland—its original mission has long been obsolete, and it has lost its focus. When I do update it, it is usually in the service of talking about topics in the general orbit of my readings and viewings … not in itself a bad thing, but it’s high time I started putting those posts in a more appropriate setting.

So the next time I post, it will be to announce the launch of blog 2.0 … as yet unnamed. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, my penultimate post is on a topic near and dear to my heart, and will hopefully put a nice little bow on what has become Lockett’s Television and Literature Emporium (a title I considered and rejected for the new blog).

"I've snapped and plotted all my life. There's no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once."

I’ve always loved the film The Lion in Winter. I have seen it numerous times (often late at night when I’ve happened across it on TV), and a few years ago I picked up the DVD in a bargain bin. Until recently, however, I had never read the play itself.

More or less on a whim, I picked it up when I found it at Chapters about a week ago. Reading it was like visiting old friends, except that I found the experience vaguely … dissatisfying. One of my quibbles with the film, as good as it is, has always been just how contrived the action feels: the scheming and plotting and counter-scheming by King Henry, by Queen Eleanor, and their three sons is exhilaratingly naked and frank, but it always stretched credulity that they would wear their resentments and ambitions so openly. That being said, it was always easy to ignore the little voice in the back of my head, so brilliant are the performances by Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn.

But reading the play laid its theatrical contrivances—its setpiece conflicts, improbable revelations, declarations, and avowals, to say nothing of the constant convenient (and inconvenient) entrances and exits—all bare and painfully obvious. To be certain, the genre of the parlor drama, of which Lion is a noble example, cannot escape such contrivances. It must, by necessity, force a critical mass of conflict, painful revelations, and psychological angst into a limited time and space (see also: Night, Long Day’s Journey Into, and Virginia Woolf, Who’s Afraid Of). However scrupulously the stage, costumes, and characters are rendered, the action itself necessarily begs a little bit more suspension of disbelief.

Such is the case with The Lion in Winter. Still, had I read it five or ten years ago, I would probably not be having these quibbles to the same degree. So what has changed? In a word: television. HBO and the cable stations that have learned from its example—AMC, Showtime, FX, and every now and again the networks—have burst the riverbanks of episodic TV. Rather than tuning in once a week to see the latest self-contained, procedural narrative, we increasingly get caught up in intricate seasons-long, multiple-character stories.

HBO, not to put too fine a point on it, has ruined me. It has ruined me not just for episodic procedurals and un-nuanced, big-brush dramas, but also for otherwise bravura setpiece dramas where I find myself wanting to know how we got there, or getting irritated by the lack of subtlety the two-hours’ traffic of the stage (or screen) often necessitates. It has ruined me for expansive historical narratives that privilege overstated romance over the vagaries of political power; it has ruined me, really, for anything that feels the need for heavy-handed exposition or for its characters to state the obvious. I gravitate now to the long build and the slow burn, stories that take between eight and twelve hours to develop, characters whose evolution—their progress, regress, irruptions, collapses and triumphs—seems to unfold on a geological time scale.

None of this should really surprise me, as I’ve always been a narrative junky (another name I considered and rejected for the new blog)—preferring substantial, chunky novels to novellas or short stories, and drawn more to good stories told well than to visual or written narratives that rely more on expressionism or metaphor. There is something deeply satisfying about television series like The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Deadwood (among others) in the way they tend not to pander, to resist easy closure and pat resolutions, the way they show their characters no quarter (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), and above all the way in which they are unapologetically intelligent. While I can read something like The Lion in Winter and appreciate its artistry, it now unfortunately feels like the penultimate episode in a series based on Henry II and his family—except that, in the series, all of the play’s histrionics would be unnecessary, because at the point when they met for that fateful Christmas we’d be intimately familiar with the characters, their loves and hates, jealousies and resentments, desires and fears.

I’m aware, of course, that this is an entirely unfair criticism to level against a classic piece of theatre, at least in the way I’ve done it. But as I say, HBO has ruined me: these are not unusual thought processes for me anymore. For good or for ill, a certain amount of my reading and viewing has become inflected with the question “What would HBO do?” I recently read The Wars of the Roses by Trevor Royle, and could not help but imagine what a series or mini-series about the dysfunctional York family would look like (actually, that’s an easy one—it would look an awful lot like Game of Thrones, minus the dragons); or when I read Tim Cook’s excellent two-volume history of Canadian troops in WWI (At the Sharp End and Shock Troops), I longed for our irreverent, foul-mouthed, colonial soldiers to be given the Band of Brothers treatment; watching Elizabeth: The Golden Age at my parents’ house while visiting a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think how brilliantly HBO or AMC could do a series depicting the career of Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham; and knowing HBO has an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in the hopper threatens to make my head explode with fanboyish glee.

None of which, I should hasten to add, is to suggest that HBO is infallible. It’s put its foot in it a few times (John of Cincinnati, anyone?), and it has a good number of series that you won’t find me defending. Sex and the City started really well, but after two or three seasons fundamentally betrayed what made it great, as it shifted from depictions of unapologetically single, sexually adventurous women to an ongoing hunt for husbands; True Blood has long since become what Game of Thrones is often accused of, namely a weekly excuse for blood and boobs; aside from the brilliant performance of Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire always felt a little like warmed-over Sopranos; and I’ll never quite understand why Entourage was ever green-lit in the first place.

But these are quibbles. At their best, HBO and its acolytes have redefined television—or have, at any rate, shattered the conceptions of television’s limitations. Once upon a time, it was inconceivable that the medium of television could ever produce art. Now there are those who hail a show like The Wire as the contemporary incarnation of the Great American Novel.

Is that hyperbole? Yes and no. Mostly, it’s a misapplication of the term “novel,” but it unsurprisingly invites backlash. Just the other day, Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish linked to an article whose author, Liel Leibovitz, takes umbrage with what he characterizes as the vastly exaggerated esteem in which some television is now held. Television, in his words, “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.” While he avers that he is delighted to see such a previously degraded medium achieve excellence (even though he himself has no intention of watching the shows in question), it irks him that there are those who would presume to rank today’s television auteurs alongside our greatest novelists. To quote him at length:

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.

I’m not unsympathetic. I’m not, really … because I am, myself, at best ambivalent about claims that television can accomplish what a novel can. But my ambivalence is fundamentally different from Mr. Leibovitz’s. Indeed, where he gives away the game with his declaration that it “will never be more than just TV,” I reject the idea that one medium is or can be categorically inferior to another. Television may pursue similar ends as the novel—as it pursues similar ends as cinema or theatre—but also possesses its own unique constraints and possibilities. Its possibilities and potential, I’d argue, have only recently been explored on a larger scale. Once upon a time I probably would have agreed implicitly with Mr. Leibovitz’s argument; once upon a time, I opined that no matter how banal, poorly written, or formulaic a book was, it was a better intellectual pursuit than watching television, because it engaged the brain in a way television could never manage.

In hindsight, I was wrong: there has always been television that is intelligent and challenging (even if much of it tended to air on the BBC). But now more than ever, I would say that there is television that is vastly superior—intellectually, artistically, and otherwise—to the balance of novels populating the fiction section of your local bookstore. Not all of it, mind you—not even most. I’m not about to pit Top Chef against a decent read. But The Wire? Deadwood? Breaking Bad? To categorize such shows as “just TV” is meaningless, for the simple reason that these shows have fundamentally challenged the very idea of what television can be and do.

To be fair, however, Mr. Leibovitz’s ire appears to proceed from his argument with the idea that these shows are “like novels,” and he attempts to demonstrate how television inherently lacks the depth and complexity of Henry James. But in so doing, he engages in a classic straw man argument. It’s like saying to a possible draft pick “You’ll never be good enough to play in the NBA” and proving your premise by making him play some one-on-one with Kobe Bryant. Indeed, besides James the only other novelists Leibovitz mentions are Tolstoy, Proust, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. Well, if those are your benchmarks, it’s hard not to be skeptical of the claim that “TV is so good now that it’s just as great as our great novels!”

And, really, if he honestly is hearing that on a regular basis, I understand his irritation. But again, if James, Tolstoy, et al are your starting lineup, then the statement “Novels are so good right now they’re just as great as our great novels!” would be just as valid a target for your skepticism. That the most current novelist cited is Proust makes Mr. Leibovitz’s argument suspect, though even if he’d mentioned the likes of Don DeLillo or Ian McEwan or Toni Morrison, the premise falls apart for the simple reason that we’re talking two very different kinds of fruit here. The novel is now around three hundred years old; television is not quite sixty, and it has only found its stride, artistically, in the last fifteen. Let’s not forget that the novel was, in its infancy, roundly condemned by the intelligentsia as a degraded and corrupt form that catered to the lowest common denominator—too sentimental and lascivious, too full of cliché and “low” characters to ever aspire to the level of art.

Sound familiar?

On that note, here’s more:

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.

I honestly don’t even know where to start with this, so I’ll quote Andrew Sullivan’s response:

He’s so wrong. And he’s crazy to pick an example like Breaking Bad. Watching the evolution of the central character of Walter White—and those around him—as he sinks deeper and deeper into the easy evil, has been a character study equal to any novel, or even Shakespearean drama. And what makes this show so great is precisely its ability to slow down, to show character in grainy detail, to watch human faces and bodies change, to observe the subtly changing dynamics between, say, Walter and his son. There is silence in that series, just as there is immense psychological complexity.

The fact that Mr. Leibovitz did choose Breaking Bad as his example suggests two things to me: (1) he hasn’t actually watched the show for more than an episode or two, and (2) it’s probably the show most often being called novelistic in his presence. But I think where he really goes off the rails is in his implication that somehow the imperative to entertain and keep an audience riveted isn’t also crucial to the novel. Why else do we read? All of the novelists he mentions produced great art—but they also knew how to tell a good story.

He’s technically correct to say that a shot of Walter White brooding in his kitchen is less thrilling than a shot of Walter White shooting a man in the head … but in saying so, he’s entirely missing the point of what makes Breaking Bad such a compelling show, and what keeps viewers coming back. If all Walter White did was shoot people in the head—just as if all Tony Soprano did was whack informants, if all we ever saw on The Wire was shootouts between drug gangs, if variations on the Red Wedding happened in every episode of Game of Thrones—well, frankly, I wouldn’t be wasting my time writing this rebuttal. The fact of the matter is that scenes of Walter White brooding in his kitchen, to say nothing of his many strained and awkward dinners with his wife, his tortured paternal relationship with his sidekick Jesse Pinkman, his cancer treatments, his meticulous and fussy (and often stridently pedantic) cooking sessions, all of that makes his irruptions of rage and violence and his cumulative sociopathy that much more significant.

And here is where the inclination to compare such shows to novels becomes tempting. The long-form storytelling, the multi-linear narrative, the complexity and nuance of the stories as they evolve over multiple seasons, the preoccupation with character psychology … these elements invite such a comparison. But of course, however much certain series might emulate and replicate these novelistic tendencies, it is a fallacy to make a simple one-to-one analogy.

But it is understandable—for the simple reason that HBO and company’s departure from televisual norms begs for language to describe it, and in the absence of a new critical vocabulary we reach for the closest analogues we can find. I sympathize with Mr. Leibovitz’s irritation—to a point. Beyond that point however is the part of me that reads a classic piece of theatre and wonders what would David Simon do with this? or Ian McShane = awesome Henry II.

It’s a sickness.

1 comment:

Alycia said...

This is cool!