Mad Men. The Walking Dead. Breaking Bad. True Blood. The Wire…
The best of cable TV over the past few years has re-invigorated the medium. People talk about television drama now in a way they haven’t for a long time, that is, with irony-free interest and brainy passions. The dinner party intelligentsia can analyze Don Draper at length without shame, without worrying about the conversation being dumbed down or a fellow guest wondering if she has shown up at the wrong address. You hear fewer educated sorts bragging about not owning a television and more of them buying whole seasons of favourite shows and viewing them, in a ravenous swallow, over the course of a few evenings. So how did TV manage this turnaround (or at least partial turnaround) from dismissably vapid to meaty substance? Simple. TV became novels.
People still read, of course. They will always read. But I have this theory: as much of so-called serious fiction has turned its back on story in favour of message or affirmation or obvious theme – as it specializes in handy book club discussion points over raw narrative – TV drama has stepped in to fill the gap. The best of cable (and some broadcast) storytelling does what novels do, or used to do: it draws flesh-and-blood characters and inserts them into high stakes situations and then surprises us with how they respond, what they do, the mistakes they make. The best examples of this (Breaking Bad, in my opinion) don’t show essentially good people doing essentially good things (the Oprah model) but nakedly real people doing nakedly real things. These shows trouble us as they entertain us, leaving aside the pre-chewed moral lessons of so much so-called literary fiction. They trade instead in ambiguity, understandable villainy, the grey zones that make up our actual lived lives (as opposed to life as we might wish it to be).
This is not to say, by the way, that TV has trumped the novel. Not yet. But there are now a growing number of dramas on our screens so good – so literary, in the true sense of the term – that they offer a pointed reminder of not only what television can be, but books too.