In my first year 11 English class, our teacher had us write down ‘What is Literature?’ and then dutifully copy out ‘mood’, ‘tone’, ‘narrative structure’ and ‘characterisation’. Come exam time, identifying the tone and mood of a piece became more second nature to me than getting dressed in the morning. I came from a family of book lovers, of literature majors. I read one book a week. And, yet… I had a secret.
I was a television fanatic.
While film is often considered less intellectual than literature, scorn is usually reserved exclusively for TV. Many criticise it as lazy entertainment, designed to curb the imagination that literature demands. TV is, apparently, raising generations of teenagers numb to cartoon violence and unaffected by the near-constant sex on shows like Jersey Shore and its far-superior counterpart Geordie Shore.
Fast-forward to 2017 and TV has surpassed film as one of the most lucrative businesses one can engage in. Networks such as HBO, The CW and FX are churning out dramas of the highest calibre; while Netflix and Amazon are producing series which are giving rise to a new generation of talents. Even Salman Rushdie was quoted by The Observer in 2011 saying that the creative process in TV was comparable to that of a novel.
But can TV be literature? Can we consider the writing of current series to be so ground-breaking, so engaging, that we elevate it the levels of some of the great novels?
We most certainly can.
The biggest criticism of TV is of its lazy characterisation. Too often, we see one-dimensional, sugar-coated stereotypes that marginalise minority groups and misrepresent the complexity of human interactions. When reading a good novel, we invest in the characters, and we add a little of ourselves to them and their motivations. With TV, the character is handed to you already fully fleshed out, and critics would argue that this makes the audience lazy and complacent. But TV doesn’t have to kill imagination.
Arguably one of television’s most carefully crafted characters was Tony Soprano. From his opening ‘look, it’s impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist’ to that final basket of onion rings, Soprano’s narrative carried a little bit of all of us in it. Yes, he was a mobster, but he was an animal lover, a family man, and a confused man. Similarly, the effort dedicated by the Breaking Bad writers to Walter White saw them craft a multifaceted character who, though his reality was absurd, scored a legion of fans. His initial dedication to his family through to this final acceptance that ‘I did it for me, I liked it’ was as much a journey for the audience as it was for Walt himself. In these cases, the writers have crafted journeys and motivations for these characters that, rather than providing superficial, comforting entertainment, demand the audience find a bit of themselves in them.
Furthermore, the gifted characterisation on display in current TV offers a much-needed diversity. Though, there is a long way to go. Still, shows like Orange is the New Black, Dear White People and Jane the Virgin make heroic efforts in portraying ageing women, people of colour and the LGBTQIA+ community. Critically, these characters are emerging as richly developed, emotionally complicated ones rather than the superficial stereotypes of another era.
A great novel captivates us. TV, on the other hand, is mindless; it takes you only as far as a stupor on the couch. Of the current TV series, this image of mindlessness simply does not apply. The clear amount of creative work that has gone into scenes from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing short of visionary. When I first read the novel, the phrase ‘caught in the act, sinfully scrabbling’ stayed with me as perfectly encapsulating the sheer tension of the scrabble sessions, something surely the TV series could not command. And yet, as I watched Elisabeth Moss’ Offred struggle to look into Waterford’s eyes, as they laid their tiles in silence, I felt the sin ooze off the scene. It was masterfully crafted, dripping in tension that made my skin prickle.
Obviously, trash TV still exists. I can’t begin to offer analysis on the tone and mood of The Bachelor or the narrative voice of Love Island. Yet, television has arguably hit its zenith. It’s not just drama. The sophistication of comedy writing in shows like Arrested Development, Veep and The I.T. Crowd is unparalleled; it demands attention and appreciation of the subtleties of timing and tone. Crime, too, is at its pinnacle. The genius of shows such as Happy Valley and Broadchurch is the combination of sophisticated characterisation, a coherent narrative structure and those small details that create the perfect mood.
TV has people talking. As Dickens’ serials captivated his audience each week, so too are we now discussing the recent episode of Game of Thrones. As people are quoting Shakespeare, they are also proclaiming ‘You know nothing Jon Snow’ or, if they’re old enough, glossing over the juicy details with ‘yada yada yada.’ No longer can we simply shrug TV off as the poor relative of film and the far lesser cousin of literature. Its power is only just beginning to emerge, and it is only beginning to tap into its potential.
My last thought: give Donald Glover the Nobel Prize in Literature 2017 for Atlanta. Watch it, and you’ll be with me.