Lorrie Moore is best known as a lauded writer of fiction, of razor-edged, beautifully wrought short stories published in collections like “Birds of America” and “Like Life” and novels like “Anagrams” and “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” But she’s also become an unexpected and interesting chronicler and analyzer of television, in essays that can span both the personal and the critical.
Here she is in the New York Review of Books dwelling on “Homeland” and how “shared torment is not enough for love between spies.” In another piece at the same outlet, now locked away behind a paywall, she described discussing “Friday Night Lights” at a party, and how it was “the brooding, beautiful, and slightly doomed Tim Riggins, handsome as a statue and bleakly craving goodness, about whom no one could stop talking.” Here, on “The Wire.”
As overused as the term “golden age of television” has become, and as much praise as has been heaped on “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” there are still plenty of people (particularly from the higher parapets of culture and media) who’ve been slow to come around to the idea of the small screen as a source of anything other than guilty pleasure, and there’s still a scarcely detectable touch of apology to Moore’s approach to the medium, as much as there is enthusiasm.
That journey from looking at TV as something that should be disparaged to one of seeing it as a source for a unique form of storytelling was the basis of a talk Moore gave at the New York Public Library last Friday — the annual Robert B. Silvers lecture, which she titled, simply, “Watching Television.” “Television is a subject about which I’m the opposite of an expert — I probably don’t even qualify as an amateur,” she began.
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Growing up, Moore explained, her religious parents didn’t like their children to watch TV (“it makes me feel sad and lonely even now just saying that out loud”), and so, instead, she and her siblings would have to sneak time with reruns of “F Troop” and “Gilligan’s Island,” sitcoms filled with what she described as “trapped people.” Those static shows resemble little the ones she came to write about after a period, in her 20s and beyond, of looking down on the small screen and not owning a television. But now there are shows like “Top of the Lake” and “Breaking Bad,” one that are able to partake of a quality, a luxury that many other forms of narrative do not have — that of time.
“A feeling of unrushedness is what allows Bryan Cranston to portray one person at the beginning of ‘Breaking Bad,’ another one in the middle and at the end to reach back and meld the two,” Moore said. “Leisureliness and the forms spun out of it is a great container for storytelling. It also, due to pacing, allows narrative art to avail itself of older, slower forms.
“When Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale meet for that final time in a great scene from season three of ‘The Wire,’ reminiscing of their childhood, looking out from a balcony to the neighborhood below, what do we have but Othello or Iago or Iago and Judas, suspicion and trust doled out unevenly between two men who imagine they are close and soon know, as the audience already does, that they are not.”
Quality dramas are often compared to novels, though it’s a comparison that both works and doesn’t — binge viewing, Moore noted, is really only the equivalent of keeping reading past a too-short chapter, but “a book can’t proceed without you.” That said, TV, with its many collaborators, of which she particularly called out the actors, have a better chance of leveling out that quality she believes gets poorly described as “likability,” and which she sees as the audience detecting that “feeling of the book’s superiority to a character.” There’s only one author of a book, she pointed out, but there are many in a TV series, and she thinks that allows for characters that may be unlikable but that remain utterly fascinating.
It’s a rich talk that takes an unusual path toward and sometimes around many of the usual topics that come up when discussion good TV, and as one would expect from Moore, it’s gorgeously thought out and phrased. You can listen to the full lecture below: