Who's Afraid of Serial TV?
By Phillip MaciakSeptember 15, 2016
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the seemingly inescapable idea that successful media forms must murder each other. To me, the biggest purveyor of this concept in pop criticism is the long-lived, constantly regenerating, Arthur-fist-clench-inducing meme that “TV is the New Novel.” The locus classicus for this evergreen hot take is Charles McGrath’s 1995 New York Times essay, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel.” McGrath’s primary assertion in his extended piece is this: “Weekly network dramatic series are flourishing in a way that they haven’t since the very early days of the medium and have grown in depth and sophistication into what might be thought of as a brand-new genre: call it the prime-time novel.”
There are lots of problems with this claim, in my reading, and those problems have been inherited by many of the writers who periodically pull this take from the fridge and microwave it so that the internet has something to eat for lunch. The primary issue is the equation of “depth and sophistication” with “the novel.” The essay itself is actually a fairly insightful assessment of the state of the serial drama in the nineties, but it is cloaked in this protectionist panic about the novel’s superiority as a form. I have no issue ascribing “depth and sophistication” to either the novel or the TV serial, but I do have an issue with employing one to confer “depth and sophistication” upon the other. (See here and here for recent iterations of this argument.) And it’s worth noting, on this point, that McGrath only barely makes any comparison between TV and the novel on formal grounds: he doesn’t talk about seriality or the management of time, even the kind of cross-media analysis of montage in novels and films that Sergei Eisenstein did in 1944. Nope. TV is the New Novel because it’s “sophisticated” and it doesn’t make you feel guilty about liking it the way maybe it used to. TV is the New Novel the same way that Shake Shack cheeseburgers are the New Novel or haute couture hoodies are the New Novel.
Anyway, I didn’t invent the concept of taste hierarchies—read Michael Newman and Elana Levine for more!—but the reason I bring all this up is because of a different, no less influential, aspect of this argument. That is: TV is the New Novel because it’s trying to kill the novel. The king must die. Charles McGrath isn’t worried though:
TV will never be better than reading, thank goodness. It’s hard to imagine a tube, however small, that could approximate the convenience and portability—the companionability—of a book. And images and spoken words, no matter how eloquent, lack the suggestiveness, the invitation to something deeper, of words on a page.
Uh oh— they invented that tube! (Man, this is a lesson for us critics: if you don’t have a time machine, try not to predict the future of technology.) The main takeaway from this passage is that, even though lovers of literature needn’t worry about television destroying the novel because TUBES, the ascendance of this new medium carries with it a risk. McGrath isn’t being cocky here, he’s trying to be reassuring. Asteroids are out there; this one just missed us.
But the novel isn’t the only medium on Arya Stark’s kill list these days. TV is after the movies, too! Actually, according to a recent Wired article by Brian Raftery entitled “Could This Be The Year Movies Stopped Mattering?” a veritable Suicide Squad of new (and old) media are plotting to assassinate the cinema. In this telling, prestige television is in cahoots with Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Pokémon Go, the “Damn, Daniel” meme, and Hamilton to lay siege upon the box office.
I don’t share Raftery’s anxiety (though I do admire the contortions necessary to partially blame a bad summer for blockbuster movies on the sheer existence of Hamilton). But, as is often the case, one take has begotten another, this time by Richard Brody, whose essential “Front Row” blog is the soul of film criticism at The New Yorker. He begins in this way: “The simplest refutation is that what matters is determined not by media discussion but by each person for herself; movies matter to me, therefore they matter.” I like this line of reasoning a lot. As Brody goes on to discuss, the emergence of the internet has both democratized and atomized arts criticism. Anybody can do it—as in, anybody with an internet connection is able to broadcast an opinion—which is, on balance, a good thing. But, at the same time, small critical pockets can take on the appearance of broad consensus. Instead of arguing that movies matter — and, thus, that they are not dead — because the internet lets criticism about them spread virally, Brody tacks the other way. This is the greatest trick the internet ever pulled. The reality is that, in 2016, just as in 1995 and 1944, what makes an art form matter is whether or not people, as individuals, care about it. Hamilton and Lemonade and Pokémon and a million little think pieces on all of the above can’t make movies not matter if there are people out there who still love them.
The part of Brody’s essay I want to take issue with, though, is the way that his elegant defense of the cinema is couched in a kind of off-hand polemic against both serial television and online TV criticism. Brody is notorious for being somewhat intolerant of the small screen (the “tube,” if you will). Indeed, his New Yorker colleague and sometimes Twitter frenemy Emily Nussbaum has taken to issuing public disclaimers, whenever Brody opines about a television show, that he doesn’t actually watch television. Plus, he regularly says things like this: “The very essence of the format of serial television is information masquerading as art; its actual competition isn’t movies or museums or even novels but nonfiction, journalism, radio discussions, and podcasts.” (This echoes a claim yet another New Yorker critic, James Wood, made in his infamous invective against the “hysterical realism” of Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace, that, “Information has become the new character.”) Brody develops an argument along a similar line here, that television series are something like husks for “hot-button issues,” waiting to be shucked by eager digital journalists looking to say something about something:
The rise of so-called quality television has coincided with the advent of widespread access to the Internet, which is closely correlated with consumers’ level of education. The serial nature of serial television lent itself to online discussion — blogs, comments, e-mails, and then, a few years later, social-media postings — in a way that the one-time-only and freestanding experience of going to a movie doesn’t, at the same time that it also locked specifically into the new habits of the educated in a way that moviegoing didn’t.
The principal quality of quality TV has proven to be its ability to generate discourse — not just on the part of critics and viewers but on the part of journalists. As particular series, and television over all, became the subjects of widespread public discussion — discussion in the literal sense, of writers and viewers responding to each other — that discussion became news. Suddenly, television was propelled from the arts page to the front page, and that trend was accelerated by the nature of the shows. Their emphasis on stories and characters involving iconic phenomena in cultural history and hot-button issues of contemporary sociology and politics grabbed — and still grabs — hold of journalists’ nose for stories. Many series seem to exist only to present topics in ready-to-debate form; they are built to give rise to “think pieces,” which have become the dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode.
First of all, “so-called quality television”? Damn, Daniel! Once we hop past that slight, though, much of Brody’s argument scans. It doesn’t seem wrong to say that the explosion of TV criticism online over the past decade hasn’t just brought series to the fore or legitimized the art to a skeptical public, it’s also turned TV shows and episodes of television into convenient pegs for cultural commentary more generally. You can write about X topic by way of Y television show in a way that might seem more intense because of the immediacy of online debate. (Though let’s not sleep on Norman Lear, whose socially-conscious Very Special Episode style has seen a decidedly retro resurgence thanks to new series like The Carmichael Show.)
That said, as Brody keeps punching, his opponent turns into a straw man. He says that the “think piece” is a “dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode,” but it also appears that he’s forming his judgment of online TV criticism—as well as the TV series themselves that he blames for producing the current discourse— based on the parody rather than the real thing:
The experience that the watching and the critique of new serial television resemble above all is the college experience. Binge-watching is cramming, and the discussions that are sparked reproduce academic habits: What It Says About, What It Gets Right About, What It Gets Wrong About. There is a lot of aboutness but very little being; lots of puzzle-like assembling of information to pose particular kinds of questions (posing questions — sounds like a final exam), to explore particular issues (sounds like a term paper). For these reasons, television’s actual competition isn’t movies or museums or novels but nonfiction books, documentary films, journalism, radio discussions, and general online clicking. Serial television is designed to gratify the craving for facts to piece together and analyze. The medium seems created for the media buzz that’s generated by the media people who are its natural audience, and to whom the shows owe their acclaim, their prestige, and their success.
Sounds like a final exam! Sounds like a term paper! Richard Brody is literally too cool for school! Well, fair enough: Explanation as a critical mode can be annoying to me, too. But that’s not all that’s out there. The pieces he’s caricaturing as “What It Says About, What It Gets Right About, What It Gets Wrong About” can be bad — just as cinephilic formalist film criticism written by people less skillful than Richard Brody can be bad — but it can also be revelatory. It can be a way into a show that reflects the way actual viewers enter or feel excluded from it. It can be a way of describing an intimacy with a work of art that isn’t stymied but actually enabled by the practices of binge-watching and repeat viewing that Brody decries as overly analytical and academic. It can be a way of parsing art that introduces readers to a new way of seeing, about excavating and refracting meaning rather than harvesting it for clicks.
Buried in all this is a valuable point about the counterintuitive way that online streaming has contributed to the post-network splintering of television audiences, which in turn has allowed for more TV geared toward elite viewers which in turn has (paradoxically) made TV less “accessible” even as access to it is at an all-time high. But I don’t think any of this is Brody’s main point. In fact, even as his essay takes shape as a defense of Art (movies) against the idea that Art (movies) can be killed by other Art (television), it mirrors some of the same anxiety we see in McGrath. You’ll note that Brody reiterates his earlier claim about “television’s actual competition,” here, and that doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Even if the idea that movies might not matter seems patently ridiculous to Brody, it's still a game of life and death. Don’t worry cinephiles, litterateurs, and museum patrons(?), TV isn’t coming for you! The asteroid will strike non-fiction media, but spare us!
It seems perverse to me to cordon off criticism from culture in this way, to infer that social commentary is click-bait and seriality nothing more than an essay prompt, to suggest that critics who’ve devoted thousands of words to discussing, for instance, the politics of TV representation — of women, of LGBTQ characters, of people of color — are playing a glorified game of Mad Libs rather than practicing serious criticism. That stuff may not matter to Richard Brody, but it matters to me, and it matters to a whole lot of other people, as well.
But beyond my small-bore disagreements with Brody, I ask again: why must we assume that media are murderers? Disagreements aside, why do we need to constantly repackage our broad-scale critiques of art in the form of cage-match battles to the death? Can’t art forms co-exist? Can’t we appraise the evolution of serial television as a form without analogizing its rise to the annexation of enemy territories? Can’t we critique criticism without assuming that it’s been poisoned or blinded by its object? Brody has a problem with TV criticism “posing particular questions,” but, beneath all the blustery eloquence of this essay, it is, at bottom, just another answer to a much older and more tired question: Are Movies Dying? And if so, Who is Killing Them?
The answer, even Brody seems to acknowledge, is “nobody.” So can we just let television live?
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!