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Stop Comparing TV Shows to Novels. It’s Not a Compliment.

Stop Comparing TV Shows to Novels. It's Not a Compliment.

If you’ve been following criticism of the new season of “True Detective” — or, more specifically, the criticism of that criticism lodged by the show’s die-hard fans — you’ll have noticed a particular complaint surfacing with remarkable consistency: It’s too soon to judge. Never mind that, after last night, we’re officially in the home stretch, that, as HBO’s promotion’s department somewhat desperately reminded us, there are “only three episodes left” (which, as Uproxx’s Mike Ryan pointed out, comes off less as an enticement than the “You can do this!” encouragement you might give a marathoner as she nears the finish line). TV shows are the new novels, and you wouldn’t judge a novel after reading a few chapters, so shut your mouth, ride it out, and we’ll talk when it’s all over.

Mostly, you hear this from Nic Pizzolatto partisans who argue that critics didn’t start to recognize the first season’s greatness until midway through — which, as I’ve already pointed out, is a patent falsehood — and further suggest that “True Detective” naysayers have developed a collective anti-Pizzolatto bias. (I’d counter that, after the first season’s fizzle of an ending, Pizzolatto has forfeited the benefit of the doubt, though that wouldn’t carry much weight in these particular conversations.) But you also hear it from critics like Uproxx’s Andrew Roberts, who wrote, “It’s the middle of the book. And I don’t know many reviews that grade a book chapter by chapter. Books move and shake and try things that will hopefully play out in the end. ‘True Detective’ is like a new book each season.”

It’s hard to pinpoint where the idea that TV shows, at least those with short seasons and vaguely literary airs, should be treated like novels began. But its status as a reflexive canard is a purely 21st century phenomenon. Stephen Holden’s ecstatic 1999 New York Times review of “The Sopranos,” a watershed moment in the medium’s widespread acceptance as a worthy subject of intellectual inquiry, compares the show to Greek tragedy and Chekhov, not to mention positing it as the true sequel to the first two “Godfather” movies, but he doesn’t mention novels once.

Perhaps it was the advent of affordable DVD box sets, now largely replaced by on-demand streaming, that popularized the idea of TV seasons as unified wholes, at which point the mere two- to three-hour span of a stage play began to seem a woefully inadequate comparison. (Suck it, Aeschylus.) Or perhaps the novel just seemed like a swifter route to intellectual respectability. People had been paying movies the dubious compliment of calling them “novelistic” for decades. Now, it was the small screen’s turn.

As the study of what Thomas Doherty, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, dubbed “Arc TV,” took hold, analysis of individual episodes was pushed aside in favor of appreciating the larger themes and more gradual development of an overall season. “Arc TV,” Doherty wrote, “is all about back story and evolution. Again like the novel, the aesthetic payoff comes from prolonged, deep involvement in the fictional universe and, like a serious play or film, the stagecraft demands close attention. For the show to cast its magic, the viewer must leap full body into the video slipstream. Watch, hour by hour, the slow-burn descent into the home-cooked hell of the high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad,’ or the unraveling by degrees of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, falling off her meds and cracking to pieces in ‘Homeland.'”

There’s no question that TV’s artistic growth has been dramatically spurred by its creators’ ability to think in terms of seasons as well as episodes — a shift enabled by a host of fortuitously consonant changes in its production and distribution. But that’s also where the comparison with the novel falls apart. Novels are, by and large, the product of a single person working with one of the most accessible and cost-effective technologies on the planet. (If you’re reading this, you already have what you need to write one.) TV shows cost millions of dollars and are made by dozens, if not hundreds, of people. We may have granted showrunners like Matthew Weiner and David Chase the status of auteurs, but TV remains, like movies, an industrial art. 

Even more than movies, TV is defined by its means of distribution. The advent of streaming-original series like “Orange Is the New Black” may have freed us from the notion that a series has to air on a network to be considered “television,” but because those series still need to be sold to traditional carriers in other countries, even Netflix’s shows hew to familiar forms: Seasons run 13 episodes; episodes run between 45 to 60 minutes for dramas, 22 to 30 for comedies. Imagine if every novel was 13 chapters long, and each chapter was roughly the same length. Imagine further that while Americans are able to purchase those novels as a whole and read them at our own pace, each chapter needs to be self-contained enough to be sold as a discrete unit elsewhere in the world, and further, that because those chapters are sometimes sold individually, there’s a significant risk in any one chapter straying too far from what its readers have come to expect, lest they bail before the next regularly scheduled installment.

That doesn’t make TV inherently inferior to novels, any more than knives are inferior to spoons. But it does make it essentially different, in ways that comparisons, however well-intentioned, work to erase. (It rankles, too, that the comparisons only ever work one way: No one praises a novel by saying it’s like watching TV.) As Adam Kirsch wrote in the New York Times last year, “To liken TV shows to novels suggests an odd ambivalence toward both genres…. Mixed feelings about literature — the desire to annex its virtues while simultaneously belittling them — are typical of our culture today, which doesn’t know quite how to deal with an art form, like the novel, that is both democratic and demanding.”

Doherty’s suggestion that Arc TV is “all about back story and evolution” elevates the whole at the expense of its parts. In the novelistic view of TV, there’s no place to consider an episode as a (semi-)discrete unit, even though that episode might have a different director and writer than any other in the season. It ignores the fact that, unlike chapters in a novel, TV episodes are built to be consumed individually, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. Suggesting it’s somehow inappropriate to judge them that way is absurd, though not as absurd as it would be if we all followed through on that suggestion. I don’t imagine even Nic Pizzolatto himself would be thrilled if the first seven episodes of “True Detective” were greeted by polite silence, followed by a one-time flood of reactions as the final credits rolled.

The meanings of individual episodes do shift as a season progresses, sometimes more than once, and the best shows play with those provisional judgements: Even those frustrated by, say, the apparent digression of Don Draper’s relationship with a sad-eyed waitress in “Mad Men’s” final half-season seemed to soften their criticisms once its place in the series’ endgame became clear. (Among Matthew Weiner’s many talents, his greatest genius may be for structure; the character beats in “Mad Men’s” seasons play out with the precision of an Accutron watch.) But those episodes’ place in the grand scheme of things doesn’t serve as an inoculant against criticisms that “Severance” and “New Business” were gloomy, torpid affairs. It’s one response, but it’s not the only one.

There’s an argument to be made that the explosion of week-by-week recaps has wiped out, or at least overshadowed, the more reflective TV criticism of eras past, with debates, like the one over the cliffhanger at the end of “True Detective’s” “Night Finds You,” raging for days only to be made irrelevant by the next episode’s developments. But that’s exactly the kind of anxiety that cliffhanger was engineered to provoke. You can’t craft an ending that leaves viewers furiously wondering what happens next and then chide them for speculating. There’s been no more vocal proponent of the TV-as-novel idea than “The Wire’s” David Simon — who, to his credit, convinced HBO to send the entire final season of “Tremé” to critics in advance. But even he allowed, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall that “[I]f the thing is assessed in real-time, it absolutely has value. It certainly does.”

Episodic reviews may have shifted the critical emphasis from overall themes to weekly execution, but the best critics take note of both, using recaps to offer the kind of fine-grained analysis that more sweeping critical essays rarely have room for. And, as Slate’s Willa Paskin points out, the idea that TV seasons should be be judged midstream because they are like novels neglects the fact that we are constantly judging novels as we read them. Who hasn’t abandoned a novel that started off badly, whether by deliberate judgement or by simply drifting on to some more promising book? The analogy, Paskin writes, “is almost always used as a chastisement against judging a TV show too early. It is not, as it could be, used to point out that the early chapters of a book are a pretty good indicator of the novel to come. And it is not, as it could be, used to highlight how much more patient people generally are with TV shows than with books.” (“I know the first 600 pages are kind of slow. But trust me.”)

To the extent that the TV-as-novel-ists are advocating for criticism to take the long view, that’s all to the good. But of late, the analogy mainly seems to be deployed as a kind of anti-critical ploy: “Game of Thrones” fans would pretend to spend the week between episodes speculating about who’s going to get killed next without your rape-culture thinkpiece impinging on their enjoyment, thanks very much. (If that series has proved anything, it’s that a 700-page novel and a 10-hour TV season are very different indeed.) What’s important isn’t that we judge TV by the same standards as novels — by which standard, frankly, the even the most accomplished shows can seem formally timid and culturally sluggish — but that we treat it with the same seriousness, the same appreciation of how it exploits the possibilities inherent in its own medium, rather than how it emulates the strengths of another. In 1934, as talking pictures were still finding their feet, Erwin Panofsky rebutted a critic who suggested that the addition of dialogue allowed the still-nascent medium to aspire to the condition of poetry. “I cannot remember a more misleading statement,” Panofsky wrote. “I would suggest: ‘The potentialities of the talking screen differ from those of the silent screen in integrating visible movement with dialogue which, therefore, had better not be poetry.'” Television can aspire to be like the novel. But it’s better when it aspires to be great TV.

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