It feels like every so often, someone writes a “TV is novelistic” piece. It’s been happening pretty regularly since what is probably the first major “TV is novelistic” piece, Charles McGrath’s 1995 “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel” in the NYTimes, and that idea seems to keep popping up - often with claims of originality - every once in a while.
There are, of course, lots and lots of reasons why this isn’t true. I ranted a little bit on my twitter account about the specific problems with the latest in this trend, Mary McNamara’s “Why AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ is the new novel,” which is both a typical representation of the frequent arguments and also especially un-insightful about the whole subject. She seems to contradict herself over the course of her short piece, for instance, by claiming both that Breaking Bad is “the new novel,” and that it is a “new narrative form.” She also notes that TV recapping is “rapidly eclipsing the book club as our primary form of communal literary analysis,” a statement that primarily leads me to wonder how many book clubs she’s been a part of.
What I find most interesting about the timing of McNamara’s piece is that it would appear now, as Breaking Bad is about to end. There are few moments over the course of a television series that elicit the kind of criticism that often ends in a “TV is novelistic” argument, but I’d suggest that really the only time this argument makes any sense at all is after a television series has concluded its run, or just as the finale approaches. That’s because in the midst of a television series, in between episodes four and five or really anywhere mid-stream, it’s hard to imagining mistaking television for anything else.
When a television series is done, or nearly done, we can begin to look back on its whole scope and see it as a completed, single, ossified object. All the drama of its contract negotiations and showrunner departures are now folded into the background, all the guest stars and questionable plot arcs and oddities of the one-off episode are now flattened into the single object of the text: it happened. It is what remains. We can lay it all before us, now, and treat it as though it was always that way.
In this, and perhaps only in this, is television like the novel - or at least, the novel as it seems to live in the critical conception of people who say things like “TV is novelistic.” I would argue - and have, and will continue to argue - that even in this moment, television is entirely distinct from the novelistic form, that its quirks and oddities and innovations are unique unto itself. I have a pony in this race: I have a dissertation chapter on the television episode as a narrative form with no novelistic corollary, something I continue to believe is the root of television’s narrative innovations and is, indeed, a completely awesome television-specific structure. But I can see why, at this moment when a television show is soon-to-be or recently complete, it is tempting to ignore all that other stuff and view it as a single, unbroken, immovable whole. It is satisfying. It gives you a sense of mastery. It’s why we like looking down on cities from tall buildings.
(This, by the way, is one of the primary distinctions between television and the serial novel, which is by design intended to be a single object, regardless of whether or not it was once split into pieces.)
The thesis does show up occasionally between seasons. Take, for instance, this piece in which a number of television shows are proposed as “novelistic.” The showrunners either refer to series which are nearly finished, or treat completed seasons as finished objects - leading to some very confused rhetoric. Terence Winter, about Boardwalk Empire, notes that “the series as a whole is a novel, and then you take year by year and each season as its own mini-novel.” (Mini-novel?) Then there is the oft-lauded “novelistic feel,” a phrase the article’s author seems to throw in even though David Shore’s comments about House, the context for the phrase, seem to entirely bely the whole novelistic proposition. These examples are clearly seeking to identify provisional endings from which to achieve a higher critical vantage point, or are so muddled in the use of “novelistic” as to render the term largely useless.
Because at really any other moment of the televisual proceedings, the argument makes no sense. No one, in the middle of Breaking Bad's bottle episode “Fly” would suggest that the show was novelistic, because the immediate reality of that episode - its bizarre and unmistakable existence as a TV episode par excellence - would make that argument seem silly. Nor does anyone watch a television pilot and declare the show “novelistic.” There are too many balls in the air; the specific and unavoidable peculiarities and perks of television seriality make that thought patently absurd.
And so it’s interesting to me, once again, to watch this thesis pop up as the finale of Breaking Bad gets closer. It’s a testament to how tricky and slippery and fascinating and frustrating television seriality is at every other moment of its existence - simultaneously finished and unformed, available for criticism even in its provisional state, capable of surprising or boring or suddenly disappearing.
I love television so much. I’m so glad it’s not like novels.
Since the dome is invisible can’t the town communicate with the outside world by just holding up notes? And the outside world could brief them the same way. Chester Mill doesn’t have to use a scratchy ham radio to get info. You’d think they were tracking Amelia Earhart.
There’s no mass panic? You’ve just been sealed in by something unknown for an unknown period of time. Just one rogue cop finds this disturbing? There’s no looting or runs on grocery stores? Even the diner stays open. People sit at the counter and sip their coffee and enjoy their pie just like it’s just another sleepy Thursday. Order that special of the day now because when they’re out of it they are OUT of it.