Is the novel dead in the U.S.? Replaced by deep, nuanced, characterization and subtext-laden TV series? Here’s what one deep thinker has to say:
by Ken Pisani
They say this is a new “golden age” of television, and whenever “they” say something so definitive we should be very skeptical—especially since TV’s first “golden age” gave us shows like Our Miss Brooks, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Heinz Studio 57, an anthology series about ketchup. But let’s concede the point, if only so I can continue writing about it.
The New York Times has posed the question, “Are the New ‘Golden Age’ TV Shows the New Novels?,” while Esquire has written “[T]he TV boxset is the ‘great literary novel of its day.’” Bill Moyers has compared David Simon’s hardscrabble take on Baltimore in The Wire to Charles Dickens’s depiction of “the smoky mean streets of Victorian London.” And I’m pretty sure another smart guy said something smart about smart TV writin’. The consensus seems to be that television has gotten more literary, regardless of the fact that most of us are watching Dancing with the Stars.
Book adaptations have always enjoyed a place on American television, as far back as Peter Pan in 1955?really just a broadcast of the stage play, but since it earned a then-record audience of 65 million viewers, it went on to be restaged by NBC in 1956 and 1960. Seeking to capitalize on that alliterative success, ABC gave usPeyton Place in 1964. As evidence that books at this time were so highly regarded, the occupation of matriarch Constance MacKenzie, a clothing-store owner in the novel, was changed to a bookstore operator in the series, while her daughter Allison, played by Mia Farrow, “liked to spend her time reading books,” according to Wikipedia. Yes, it’s hard to imagine how they squeezed 514 episodes of soapy betrayal and off-camera sex out of these suburban bookworms.
By the seventies literary source material was seen not as fodder for series but the very special “mini-series”: too long for a TV movie but just enough for an “event.” Limited series based on novels Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots demonstrated that American viewers still enjoyed seeing books spring to life, but only if it was over quickly. In the eighties, Shogun and The Thorn Birds proved even that limited attention span was dwindling—to five and three episodes respectively—although that could also likely be attributed to an audience’s pain threshold for Richard Chamberlain.
It wasn’t until the nineties that TV began to skip the adaptation process entirely and create series with rich, complex characterizations and the sometimes-meandering storytelling of good fiction. The show that changed everything was The Sopranos, on the surface the story of a mobster in therapy with mommy issues, but in reality so much more—a commentary on American life in slowly unfolding, extraordinary detail populated with rich, unlikable characters (not to mention the language, violence, and nudity that became HBO’s hallmark)….