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The idiot box grows a brain: the rise of the new television

Early in the second season of Mad Men, a young man named Arthur catches Betty, wife of the main character, advertising executive Don Draper, alone in the stables where she takes riding lessons. One of the show’s many driven yet oddly questing young men, Arthur has recently become engaged to a younger and richer woman, but alone with Betty he quickly begins to explain the jealousy his fiancé feels towards her. Betty tells him to stop, before he says something that might ruin their friendship. But Arthur doesn’t stop. “You are so profoundly sad,” he says, an observation Betty dismisses – “I’m not sad, I’m grateful” – before fleeing, shaken.

It’s a scene ripe in ambiguity, not least because Betty is not sad, or not in any simple sense. What she feels is despair and anger, feelings she does not yet know how to articulate, even to herself. But it is also a distillation of Mad Men’slarger ambition and preparedness to take risks. Because for all that characters such as Arthur worry away at the question of what lies behind the immaculate exteriors of Betty and Don, the heart of the drama is not the mystery they offer to others but the mystery they offer themselves.

Even a decade ago it would have been difficult to imagine a television network producing a show as sophisticated as Mad Men, which explores the beginnings of the social revolution that tore the US apart in the latter part of the 1960s, let alone characters such as Don and Betty who, in their elusiveness and opacity, often seem more like the inhabitants of fiction than television drama.

But in 2009, Mad Men, made by American cable network AMC, is only one of a growing catalogue of ambitious programs distinguished by not just by their complexity and intelligence but by their urgent engagement with the world we inhabit. Taken collectively these shows, this new television, constitute nothing less than a revolution, a revolution that has transformed series television, late in life and perhaps improbably, into our most vital cultural form.

Yet this revolution is about something more fundamental than better writing and more adventurous producers. For shows such as Mad Men, The Sopranos, Big Love, Deadwoodand Battlestar Galacticado not so much push the boundaries of series television as radically redefine them. No longer tidy, predictable, generic, at its best the new television commands the richness and breadth of vision that was once the sole preserve of the novel. And like the flowering of the novel during the 19th century which it in so many ways resembles, it is a transformation that depends as much on new modes of distribution and growing literacy, as on the reimagining of the form from within.

In a way, it is a revolution that begins with one man, David Chase. In the mid-1990s, Chase, a relatively unknown television writer whose credits included The Rockford Filesand Northern Exposure, started shopping around an idea for a new series centred on a mobster and his family that drew heavily on Chase’s life, not least his complex and difficult relationship with his mother, his struggles with depression, experiences of therapy and family life, and his background in the rough, working-class Italian-American community of New Jersey (Chase’s real name is David DeCesare).

It was unlike anything Chase had done before and he was sceptical about taking it to the big four free-to-air networks, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox. Describing the process in 2007, he explained his reservations in terms anyone who has worked in television will recognise: “Those who run (network television) are phenomenal at putting their finger on whatever it is that really excites you about the project and telling you to take (it) out or change it. It’s genius.”

CBS was enthusiastic but, as Chase had predicted, uncomfortable with aspects of his proposal. “It’s great – this is fantastic,” Chase recalls them saying. “But … I don’t know about the Prozac. And does he have to be seeing a psychiatrist?” For Chase, who is forthright in his views about the asininity of most television (“The function of an hour-long drama is to reassure the American people that it’s OK to go out and buy stuff”) it was a question of conflicting expectations. The show he wanted to make could not be made by a network anxious to reassure advertisers and desperate not to alienate even the least intelligent viewer. And so, after knockbacks from the other big networks, he and the idea ended up at cable outfit HBO.

Operating on a commercial-free, subscription-only model, HBO was free of the pressures the free-to-air networks use to justify their conservatism. And while in the late 1990s it was still far from a significant player, it was beginning to explore more original drama and comedy. Yet even for HBO Chase’s proposal was a stretch, because of its high cost and because it broke so many of the rules of television.

To its credit, HBO allowed Chase a degree of freedom that in retrospect looks remarkable. And Chase, in turn, gambled big, casting the relatively unknown James Gandolfini in the lead, insisting on shooting on location in New Jersey, arguing hard for scripts that were dense, complex and often confronting. No one was more surprised than Chase when the show became an almost overnight sensation, receiving rave reviews and drawing record audience numbers for HBO. A series that had started out as one of the more unlikely concepts had against all expectation morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon.

It is no exaggeration to say The Sopranos, which first aired in January 1999, changed television forever. Suddenly material that once seemed too risky or too confronting was possible. Without The Sopranosit is unlikely we would have the polygamist ménageof Big Loveor the expletive-ridden Deadwood(whose hilariously foul-mouthed Al Swearengen can often seem like a low-rent Tony Soprano), or even lurid melodramas such as Nip/Tuckand Dexter.

Yet The Sopranosdid more than make the outrécommonplace. In his 1993 essay, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’, the late David Foster Wallace argued that television had become a cul de sac, so trapped in its own reflexive irony it had lost all capacity to represent or speak to reality:

“Television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of non-connection have become untrue but that they’ve become deeply irrelevant … Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in, say, the 1960s were trained by television to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, livelier by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s mega-audience is way better trained, and television has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.”

None of this is to say that The Sopranosand the shows it has engendered are not deeply aware of their own history. One could write a book listing the playful (and not so playful) references to The Godfathermovies and the films of Martin Scorsese that litter The Sopranos; while Battlestar Galactica, itself a reboot of a cheesy camp classic of 1970s sci-fi television, is so laden with in jokes, references and allusions it can sometimes seem impossible to pin down its true meaning.

Instead, The Sopranossuggested a kind of television that spoke to the anxieties, fears and secret passions of the world as it is, rather than the world television has created. Perhaps not coincidentally, in this preparedness to explore the dream world of suburbia it echoed 1999’s Oscar-winning American Beauty, written by Alan Ball, a film that would, in a direct way, pave the way for one of the other pioneering shows of television’s rebirth, Ball’s Six Feet Under.

Of course in its density and complexity the new television suggests nothing so much as the complex patterning of the novel. I wouldn’t be the first to see shades of Dostoevsky in the amoral fury of Tony Soprano’s appetites, and the conflict between the different aspects of his nature, or to register the affinities between the narrative sweep of The Sopranosand Deadwoodand the complexities of George Eliot or Tolstoy, or to glimpse the shadow of John Cheever and Richard Yates inMad Men’sevocation of 1960s America.

In the case of HBO’s crime drama, The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2008, the comparison is particularly apt, and not merely because its creator, David Simon, likes to refer to the show as a novel (a description that might also reflect the fact that the stellar writing team included novelists of the stature of Richard Price and George Pelecanos). For in its scale, complexity and the exquisite detail of its depiction of the corruption of Baltimore’s public institutions, The Wirequite deliberately (and sometimes a little too self-consciously) has in its sights the great social novels of the 19th century and their ambition to represent the whole of society from top to bottom and, more importantly, to tease out the way the destinies of the greatest were intimately connected to the fates of the most insignificant.

The novel abandoned this ambition some time ago. Although the English still dabble in the great social novel – Richard Kelly’s Crusadersand Phillip Hensher’s Booker-short-listed The Northern Clemencyare recent examples – contemporary novelists are prone to shy away from the assimilating tendency implicit in such a conception of their form, suspicious perhaps of its colonising eye or simply overwhelmed by the sheer density and confusion of the contemporary world.

In this sense the story of the rise of the new television cannot help but be a story about the decline of the novel, or at least of its capacity to engage with the world it inhabits. Where once the novel explored the points of connection between the public and the private, it is increasingly relegated to chronicling the inward and the personal, no longer the great golden book of life but something far less exalted. Indeed some – most recently Zadie Smith, in a review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland– have echoed David Foster Wallace’s thoughts about the television of the 1990s in a literary context, arguing that the novel, or at least the realist literary novel has reached some kind of logical endpoint, its polite but reflexive aestheticizing now an end in itself, unable by its very nature to engage with the world as it is. By contrast, the new television seeks to do precisely this: to show life as it is lived, to reveal the textures and the pain and beauty of the world, to show us the extraordinary that resides within the ordinary.

Yet paradoxically, describing shows such as The Sopranos, Battlestar Galacticaor Mad Menas novelistic can also serve to obscure their more fundamental break with the television of the past. As Chase puts it, “Network television is all talk. I think there should be visuals on a show, some sense of mystery … connections that don’t add up. I think there should be dreams and music and dead air and stuff that goes nowhere. There should be, God forgive me, a little bit of poetry.”

In many ways it is this preparedness to embrace the broader possibilities of the form that distinguishes The Sopranosand its successors. Unlike film, which began life as images without sound, television’s origins lie in the spoken word of radio and theatre. For a television director composing a shot has traditionally been less about artistry and more about professionalism: deliver the dialogue, catch the reactions, move on to the next scene. Even the length of scenes is dictated by the need to insert commercials every seven minutes.

By contrast the new television owes as much to film as to radio and theatre. Chase is explicit about his debt to Federico Fellini, and his 1963 masterpiece in particular. But the textures of The Sopranosalso pay homage to directors as various as Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Arthur Penn and Terence Malick alongside the more obvious nods to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Of course, The Sopranoswasn’t the first show to seek to create television drama that drew its rhythms and textures from the subliminal, essentially mysterious landscapes of dreams and poetry. In 1990, David Lynch’s Twin Peaksoffered a glimpse of a sort of show that pointedly prefigures the more fluid, filmic logics of the new television.

Even today Twin Peaksstands out as one of the more bizarre creations network television has produced. Yet almost 20 years ago the sometimes bizarre, sometimes beautiful vision it articulates was almost miraculously singular. Within a year or two its exploration of the more paranoid anxieties of its cultural moment would be synthesised into the more conventional (or at least less unconventional) form of The X-Files(another show in which it is possible to see genre television straining against its own limitations) yet for a brief moment it opened the space The Sopranosand others would come to occupy a decade later, suggesting an idea of television that breaks free of the verbal and the conscious to explore the non-verbal and the unconscious.

At one level, this is a conception of television we see at work in the preparedness of the new television to explore the dream lives of its characters. Sometimes, as when Tony faints while watching the ducks fly away in Season One of The Sopranos; or when, as Kevin Finnerty, he passes through the transit lounge between life and death in the final season, these dream lives are part of a larger fabric. Elsewhere, as with the images of Mad Men’sBetty Draper, cigarette in mouth, rifle in hand, mowing down her neighbour’s homing pigeons, they explore hidden fantasies. Or, like the many dream sequences that intersperse Six Feet Under, they have a more literal, expository purpose. Yet in all cases it is possible to see a preparedness to leave behind the strictures of the literal and explore an inner life not often articulated, even to ourselves.

This ethos is also at work in the rhythms and textures of the new television. When Chase began work on The Sopranoshe cast off many of the artificialities that constrain conventional television. Reaction shots went, as did most of the demands for explication and, strikingly, redemption. As in life, characters just are.

Some of the shows that followed built on these innovations. Mad Menis almost entirely static, its still surfaces counterpointing the increasing tension beneath. Battlestar Galactica discards almost all the connective tissue usually expected in a television show. Filmed in jerky, handheld camera, it eschews establishing shots and expository scenes, creating the particular staccato rhythm that underpins its peculiarly hallucinatory immediacy and intensity.

These innovations remove many of the crutches television usually uses to tell us what to think and feel; without them we are on our own, left to make our own decisions. Turning the tables in such a manner is risky, not least because it demands viewers pay attention, learn the rhythms of a show. Where once the structure of television drama was essentially boilerplate, the new television is built around more intuitive logics. Scenes need not advance the plot if they add to the whole, episodes need not resolve, questions can be left unanswered. In part this is about the larger canvas upon which such shows are painted, but it is also about a preparedness to embrace the ambiguity of real life, its shifting rhythms.

It is no coincidence that almost all of the new television is produced by cable networks such as HBO, SciFi and AMC. As Simon has observed, their business model allows greater programming freedom: “If you’re a subscriber and you’re only getting it for two shows out of 10, they’ve still got your $17.95. That’s a model that can’t exist in network television because of the need to present the maximum number of viewers to advertisers. That leads to decisions about story, character and theme on network television that are just destructive.”

The rise of the new television has also been underpinned by rapid growth in alternative delivery formats, in particular DVDs and internet downloads. The Wire, which never achieved more than cult status on television, has won huge audiences on DVD, while some have described Battlestar Galactica, one of the most downloaded programs, as the show that broke the television broadcast model forever.

In an era when most narrative forms are in decline, there is something thrilling about television’s new dawn. Yet, perhaps ironically, the same technological and cultural shifts that facilitated its rise may prove its undoing. As viewers increasingly turn to online downloads, the economic models that allow networks to bear the cost of producing high-quality television (which can exceed $US10 million an episode) look chancy at best.

One might also wonder whether the creativity and adventurousness that has sustained the new television might not itself ossify into a new mannerism. While shows such as Mad Mendemonstrate the continuing vitality of the new television, it is difficult to feel quite so confident about the many subsequent shows that have pushed the boundaries of genre television, and not just because for every Lostwe seem to have a Fringe. Instead it is an exhaustion already implicit in Dexterand in the almost compulsive need to push the envelope of conventional morality. For while it may be no coincidence that so many of the most successful shows of the past decade, from The Sopranosand Breaking Badto more generic hybrids such as Nip/Tuckand Dexter, have succeeded precisely because they exploit the possibilities of the moral and imaginative space their challenges to conventional morality open up, it also seems possible that in the not too distant future the desire to build stories around drug-dealing suburbanites or serial killers with kids will become an end in itself, a way not of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, but the ordinary in the extraordinary.

And finally, and perhaps most troubling, it is open to debate whether the new television is a rebirth of the form or merely a flowering of what Edward Said famously described as late style. The new television has succeeded precisely because it offers many of the pleasures and satisfactions that were once provided by the novel, and indeed the statistics suggest that its audience is precisely the audience that has been abandoning the novel during the past two decades.

Yet that audience is ageing, and as such it is possible the new television is merely another stage in a longer and more profound shift in our culture. Younger audiences, raised on a constant flow of information, used to skimming and sampling, are increasingly impatient with fictional narrative, indeed with narrative forms of all kinds, and as such seem unlikely to be seduced by the sprawl and scope of 12 and 20-hour television series. There are those who say human beings cannot live without story; I am not so sure, though I hope time will prove me wrong.

But in the meantime, there are the shows themselves, their urgency, their risk-taking, their desire to speak back to a world that so often seems to exceed our ability to describe or comprehend it. 

In an era when we too often seem unable to think beyond the literal and the documentary, when we are more impatient with the ambiguities and possibilities of the fictional than ever, that should be enough, at least for now.

First published in The Australian Literary Review, 4 February 2009.