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by Alison Willmore
April 10, 2012 2:27 PM
1 Comment
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Is It Time To Give Up the 'TV's Like a Novel' Comparison? Not Yet.

'The Wire' HBO

It's been four years since "The Wire" ended, and we're still arguing about it. Creator David Simon launched the most recent volley of debates with an interview with the New York Times pinned, theoretically, to Richard Price's new crime series "NYC-22." But the focus quickly became Simon's seminal Baltimore crime drama and what he felt were reductive or inappropriate approaches to watching and interpreting it -- much of this sentiment coming from Grantland's use of brackets to narrow down the greatest "Wire" character.

Simon has since offered some clarifications and a sort-of apology in a long and interesting interview with HitFix's Alan Sepinwall, though not everyone's satisfied. The discussion has prompted critic Maureen Ryan to offer up a proposal for all those who write about TV: "Let's give the 'TV shows are just like books' analogy a rest. It's time we expanded our vision and stopped being so self-conscious and easily cowed when it comes to writing about television on a day-to-day basis."

Simon claims that blogging about a show by episode is like "when people try to assess the opening chapters of a book as if they are the book." Ryan responds, "The analogy doesn't really hold up, because an episode of television can stand on its own, as a complete work. To assert otherwise is to denigrate one of the medium's finest accomplishments":

Once more, with feeling: An episode is not a chapter of a book. Generally speaking, individual book chapters are not meant to stand on their own. But an episode of television has a great deal of validity as an individual work, and there's nothing wrong with treating it like the discrete unit that it can be and often is.

It's an argument that Ryan lays out with a lot of thought (I urge you to read the whole piece) and I think many of the points she makes are worthy ones -- a classically successful show should work and present themes on both the episode, season and (hopefully) complete series level. TV is structured to be serialized, and while larger ideas and storylines that develop over many installments are a necessity for any ambitious program, it's not fair to overlook the fact that shows are conceived of as things that play out over many weeks.

The paradox of shows like "The Wire" is that they don't look their best spread over weeks in typical TV fashion.

There's definitely an overload of recaps out there right now, and not as much looking back on seasons as a whole as, I'm sure, Simon would prefer (as would I). TV's structure is conducive to next-day discussions and dissections, which leads to coverage landing more on the side of episode-by-episode breakdowns instead of bigger-picture pieces. And shows like the ones from the Davids Simon and Milch and Chase might get a little shortchanged because of this, because their emphasis tends more toward the macro.

But the paradox of shows like "The Wire" and, to bring in my more recent favorite, "Luck," is that they don't look their best spread over weeks in typical TV fashion -- part of the reason "The Wire" has had more of a life on DVD, I'd guess, is because its density and nuance are better experienced in larger chunks.

"Luck" is a show I compared to "connected short stories," which doesn't mean it's any better suited to being looked at in stand-alone episodes, but that it's based on a place rather than a story, on exploring and letting you fall for a community instead of being driven by story. Taken alone, the scene in which Kevin Dunn's Marcus is convinced he's gay because romance is the only sensical reason he's so concerned about his gambling-addict friend Jerry (Jason Gedrick) seems silly. In the context of the series, in which we've been shown how distrustful and emotionally guarded Marcus is, it's profanely poignant.

I agree with Ryan that it's fair to look at television shows by episode, not just because of her argument but because it's how people watch TV. And series that maintain a balance between episodic structure and season-wide arcs deserve more credit. But I don't know that I'm ready to toss the TV-as-book metaphor quite yet. These shows in the rarefied far reaches of cable television are almost their own medium -- something between film and televison, a disinctive form of storytelling. They genuinely do feel like pieces making a whole and how we approach them as artistic endeavors is clearly worth the debate.

1 Comment

  • Edward Copeland | April 11, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    Other than The Wire, I don't know of any other TV series that has been or deserved to be compared to a novel, but that really was what that series resembled. There have been plenty of great dramas, but I wouldn't call any of them novelistic. Someone wrote a column suggesting that a phrase be retired that, to my knowledge, had only been used for a single program. Gee, that sounds more like a case of "this is a hot topic -- how can I get in on it?" than an actual argument of any validity. She is Straw Woman, Hear Her Roar.