The Magnetic Pull of Television Series


Phillip Lopate

It was not so long ago, I remember it well, that film festival programmers started saying the more interesting work these days was being done on television rather than in the movies, and serious intellectuals would ask me what TV series I was watching. This was not the old water-cooler chatter about last night’s popular show on the tube: large claims were being made that we were living in a golden age of television, eclipsing the other arts. And indeed, there did seem to be a plethora of unusual, engrossing series popping up all over the globe and suddenly available to home viewers, there was no denying it.

Being a diehard cineaste, I did not agree that cinema had lost its edge to its younger sibling. At least two dozen challenging, striking, beautiful films were still showing up each year, and from what I could tell, they were far more visually complex than TV series, which tended to rely on close-ups, reaction shots and middle shots because of that medium’s shallower depth of field and smaller screen. I did note that no less an auteur than Alain Resnais said he was captivated by the camerawork of American crime shows, with their corkscrew movements around police bullpens. But in the main, I still preferred cinematic images to televised ones, and in any case comparing the two media as though one had to choose one over the other was foolish; so if television series were to stake claims to sublimity, it would have to be on other grounds.

Their principal appeal has been in the enrichment of character. The average movie protagonist has at most two characteristics (usually contradictory for the sake of tension); his or her supporting figures, only one. Because of the protracted time frame of TV series, you are able to watch, over a period of years rather than ninety minutes, their characters get into and out of scrapes, undermine their best natures, and in general demonstrate their precise limitations as well as their potential to grow and acquire self-awareness. We get to see them more slowly and realistically moving toward their fate.

Like many Americans, I watched The Sopranos, not always but whenever convenient, and found it engrossing and charming, if a bit cartoonish. I don’t think I even believed in the characters or plot situations, but that didn’t stop me from being entertained. It was not until I surrendered to The Wire that I had my come-to-Jesus moment as regards TV series. The Wire had been touted as the best thing ever to appear on television, and with the exception of certain Frederick Wiseman documentaries such as Welfare and the 1986 World Series, I tend to agree. Here was riveting drama and character complexity aplenty. The writing was consistently intelligent, the acting brilliant, and the changing focus each season on separate institutions (the press, the public schools) made it seem an inspired fusion of Fred Wiseman and The Sopranos.

_ The Wire_ was often called “novelistic,” even likened to Dickens because of its broad social canvas. What exactly is meant when a TV series is spoken of as “novelistic”? On the simplest level, television adaptations of novels such as From Here to Eternity,Bleak House or Mildred Pierce are able to incorporate more incidents from their original source material than their movie versions. They are able to breathe more, or contain more down moments, as novels do. But even when working from original scripts, TV series have a rhythmic ebb and flow that evades the robotic arc of the three-act, Syd Field-prescribed screenplay.

Television series have also attracted our attention because they tend to be grimmer, bleaker, more violent, more pessimistic, or to posit more unresolved conspiracies, than the average fare. As with the emergence of film noir in the postwar era, they satisfy our appetite for bad news. This is especially true of Scandinavian series like The Bridge and The Killing. What drew me to these series were their consummate moodiness and their idiosyncratic, flawed police characters. The original detective partners in The Bridge are stupendously interesting, both in the field and off-duty, where we see so much of them that they acquire truly rounded dimensions. The show’s structure revolves around the attempt to solve a pattern of serial killings, a different one each season. The problem with such an initially compelling plot is that ultimately we cannot penetrate very far into the psychology of a serial killer, and the repeated attempt each season to select one of the peripheral characters and turn him or her into a plausible serial killer only leads to mechanical results. A similar letdown occurs in the conclusion of the initially promising first season of True Detectives. (The same is often true of Jo Nesbo’s mysteries: the detective is fascinating, the serial killer is not). One reason why The Wire, despite its pileup of dead bodies, remained credible was that the casualties were the result not of an individual psychopath but of a deeply rooted social system—drug gangs in the inner city—hence, business as usual.

Every good new television series gives the impression, at least for a while, of expanding freely into an open field. However glorious their debuts, most of them start to wear out their welcome when they go beyond two seasons. This is true not only of cop shows but of television series like Girls, The Affair or Homeland. What was so refreshing about Girls in its maiden season becomes tedious years later, as the young women fail to acquire any insight: how can such ostensibly intelligent, educated types remain so clueless, so susceptible to every con artist and druggy bad boy? (Okay, they’re young, I should cut them some slack, but even so….) A drama like Homeland must keep manufacturing trouble, trouble, trouble for its heroine: yes, all drama thrives on trouble, but how many times can we watch Claire Danes’ Carrie popping her eyes at the latest conspiracy or bi-polar breakdown? Once the Damian Lewis character was killed off, the show lost much of its balance, for me at least, leaving us to swirl around in ever-bubbling, somewhat random and forced paranoia. The original Israeli series, Prisoners, on which Homeland drew its inspiration, was far more psychologically complex, partly because it embedded its characters in ordinary circumstances. You got to see marriages fall apart, love affairs bloom and stumble, children and parents disappoint each other, all in rich detail. The same could be said for the Israeli version of In Treatment over its American remake. In general, the Freudian Israelis better convey a deep psychology of the everyday and the Americans are more comfortable with sensationalist melodrama.

Some television series have succeeded in remaining believable, psychologically realistic and engrossing over their entire run. Take Friday Night Lights or Borgen. Both series explored the processes of work: in the former, how to build a winning football team, in the latter, run an independent political party. (Here we see the advantages of quotidian enterprise over the serial killer/paranoid melodrama plot in sustaining interest.) Friday Night Lights, built around a rock-solid performance by Kyle Chandler as the high school football coach, demonstrated how the challenges of teaching keep changing with every new crop of students, and thereby justified its survival for five seasons. The Danish Borgen offered a fascinating look at a politician, one of the strongest, most attractively dimensional women characters onscreen, who manages to get herself elected Prime Minister, conserves her power through combining idealistic principles and Realpolitik compromise, loses her seat and retires from politics, only to re-enter it ill-advisedly at a later date because she can’t seem to walk away from the game. All done in three seasons, after which the show’s creators wisely called it quits.

Part of the mystique around television series is knowing when to pull the plug. As long as a show retains a loyal audience and critical approval, it stands a chance of getting renewed, though its initial premises may be exhausted (see, for example, The Affair). Of course we may keep tuning in long after we have given up on the story if only because we like the actors, find them physically attractive.

By the way, is there a difference between a television series and a regular TV show, and if so, what? One thinks of highly touted TV series in this, the second Golden Age of television, being framed and promoted by cable stations as finite, special events, while network TV shows are seen as repeating the same pat formulae week after week. But the most popular cable TV series sometimes last as long as network TV shows, and regular TV shows (Hill Street Blues, Law and Order) have sometimes boasted similar inventive shadings of character or novelistic rhythms during their long runs. For instance, to use a dramatic comedy example, in The Gilmore Girls the mother, Laurie, seems a bit ditsy, especially in romantic matters: she keeps getting engaged with different men and breaking it off. Her daughter Rory would appear to be more level-headed, rational and headed for success. But in time Rory shows herself to be equally flaky, shooting herself in the foot when it comes to men and opportunities, while her mother straightens out and is better able to take the measure of life’s expectations. The standard distinctions between series television and the once more familiar network show don’t really apply in this instance or in many others we can cite.

When should we locate the beginning of the phenomenon of the superior (so to speak) television series? How far back do we want to go? Twin Peaks?The Singing Detective? Earlier? The category distinctions become fuzzy, the dating even more elusive. We can agree at least that the greater options in intriguing televised fare may have changed our viewing habits. Regardless of the quality of this or that television series, or the allures and pitfalls of the genre in general, the practice of binge-watching is certainly recent. Aided by the new technologies of DVD, DVR and streaming, it signifies a retreat from public space into a more private, alternate-universe, Matrix-like realm. This outgrowth is part and parcel of our dependency on smart-phones and computer screens. If you are staring at a screen all day at work, you may as well have some juicy content to go with it on weekends or weeknights. In that respect, the television series is indeed a new escape mechanism, the drug of choice for many of us in our bedeviled historical moment.