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Of Literary Television, and the Damage Done

Press Play By Max Winter | Press Play May 28, 2014 at 5:46AM

You can’t absorb the “smart” part of a series—the cross-references, the character layers, etc.—and not somehow absorb the part of that series more commonly considered abhorrent. And if this is the case, what’s the cumulative affect of all of this absorption, of all of these hours spent binge-watching?
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If one accepts that "literary television," with its references, counter-references, allusions, character nuances, plot mechanisms and other trappings typically associated with books, as demonstrated admirably in shows ranging from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Mad Men, is a part of the cultural landscape that must be reckoned with, then it's only fair that, given a certain amount of intellectual distance, one might look at where it is headed. If the sensitive among us, and those knowledgeable about trends, and where they lead and where they don't lead, were to make such an assessment and then not feel a small ounce of queasiness, as a result, then two things are true: all is as it's supposed to be, and we, as a "culture," have a problem.

There’s no denying the pleasure to be had in stretching out and watching an episode, or seven, of The Sopranos, listening to Jersey patois deployed in comic and artful ways, or witnessing the unfolding of eccentric storylines, or drifting through dream sequences from inside the head of a Mafia boss. Similarly, entering the desert world of Breaking Bad, with its beautiful cinematography, and its deranged but sincerely human storyline, or that of Mad Men, with its cool and yet also jabberingly active period-authentic dialogue, rich with the thrill of the pursuit of money, provides excellent escape, even absorption. But it is necessary, at a certain point, to consider what is involved in that absorption. Any artistic work, be it a sonata or a blockbuster, makes requirements of its viewers. On one level, of course, there’s suspension of disbelief—the idea that anything that seems improbable or unlikely within a story can be forgiven because the work in question is fictional, not reportage—and that’s just the way storytellers do things. In the case of these shows, though, something extra is required: a sense that one is, somehow, above the story being watched, that the viewer is obviously not capable of the depths to which the characters sink, nor would ever condone the illegal activities and trespasses depicted. This breeds, with time, a sense of viewer toughness: Of course we can watch a human body being dissolved in acid and then falling, in a bloody, gelatinous mess, through several layers of wood, cement and sheetrock. It’s for the purpose of a larger story. Or: of course, we can watch advertising executives drink themselves into a stupor at their desks. That all took place long ago, and we would never, ever do such a thing today. Who could? And we certainly wouldn’t cheat on our wives, either. The sense is that the viewer, being “above” the actions portrayed on screen, can digest an episode or two and then move on, unhindered, unaffected. This toughness, though, is not necessarily foolproof. You can’t absorb the “smart” part of a series—the cross-references, the character layers, etc.—and not somehow absorb the part of that series more commonly considered abhorrent. And if this is the case, what’s the cumulative affect of all of this absorption, of all of these hours spent binge-watching?

Take, for example, The Sopranos. Since the days of The Godfather, the Mafia, with its secrecy, its sudden violence, its strangely lyrical mode of verbal expression (“Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes”) has been seemingly easily digested by the culture at large—so great is the sense that their comings and goings are separate from ours  that jokes can be easily made at their expense and have, by and large, lost whatever “edge” they may once have had. To “make someone an offer they can’t refuse” is a nearly meaningless expression at this point in time. The Sopranos, as has been widely discussed, placed viewers in an uneasy relationship with the Mafia, and with crime in general. To accept the show, or to continue watching it, would mean that the viewer would have to tread a highly quavery line: that of accepting the insecurities of its central character, sentimental attachment to ducks, panic attacks, troubled relationship with his mother, and all—and rejecting that which one knew to be wrong, i.e. the violence, the extortion, the bullying, the breaking of the laws of the land. And yet: it would be a rare viewer who did not, at some point, if only for a second, surrender and suppose: What if I were him? He has so much authority. Those guys, they really know how to get things done. And similar sentiments, all adding up to a sense that, whatever the law and common morality might say, Tony and his co-workers were an impressive bunch. Said feeling, once had, would immediately be squelched. And the next episode would be queued.

Similarly, Breaking Bad required that one both sympathize with its central figure, Walter White, a man stricken with cancer, and recognize the lawlessness of his actions: the manufacture of meth, the sale of it for his own treatments and the sake of his family, the murders, the increasingly violent way in which the day’s activities were completed, the wholesale deception of his family (at first). The distancing required here, the sense of superiority, was a bit more complex. After all, there seemed to be a specific reason for this journey, on which all viewers were passengers, into a dark and forbidding place, both a mental nadir and a socioeconomic pit, however complexly portrayed it might have been—and this reason, personal preservation, was a rather primal one. Coupled with this was the sense that, whatever his trespasses might be, White was achieving power where he had previously had none, an irresistible tale, psychological rags to riches, the victory of the underdog. Viewers were given plenty to marvel at besides the story line: the camera work (which this publication has given considerable attention), the literary references, the complexity of the plot, the almost droll attitude the show’s creator took towards its development. This was enough to prevent direct engagement, for the most part, with the actual content of the show—to somehow allow viewers to both dwell in the mind of a criminal and step outside of it, to appreciate the form without grappling with the content, and have that be enough. And yet was it? Wasn’t there some small part of some viewers that might, every now and then, watch the violence on screen and cheer inside, get some small charge from it? One might use words like devastating or horrific to describe it—but these words might be code for impressive or, sadly, enviable.

And currently there’s Mad Men, a show about a supremely unredeemable set of ad executives, from a period in American history that was, in many ways, horrible, acting viciously towards each other and their loved ones—and yet doing so with such an immaculately clever script, such a remarkably accurate set, in such stand-out wardrobes, again eerily faithful to the period, and with such a natural sense of dynamism and such a crackling, wired sense of the potential of human conversation that it is difficult, for its millions of viewers to feel anything but rapt worship for it. This worship translates into its critical reception; in its most skilled commentators, it typically inspires flights of lyricism one would best reserve for a creative writing class, a love letter, or a eulogy. The setting-aside one must do here is, again, quite complex. To engage with the show on its terms—to follow Don Draper from his false identity forward, through a career marred but also invigorated by a healthy diet of booze, adultery, familial betrayal, and narcissism—one has to both forgive him and separate one’s self from his misdeeds, issue stern rebukes to the mischievous voice in one’s ear whispering, What about that martini at lunch? Why not have an affair? Who needs to tell the truth? How old-fashioned! This is where toughness comes in: one has to watch the horror-show of sexist, racist, and classist attitudes circulating through the show’s office hallways and remind one’s self of one’s natural distance, perspective, and self-respect—and hope the reminder sticks. The show’s army of recappers all call Draper a misogynist, a sexist, a pig, any name you might think of. But few of them dismiss his ad pitches.

So in a sense, what we’re doing when we watch “literary television” is pretending we’re not watching what we’re watching—we hold the program at the level of commentary, of satire, seemingly preventing it from affecting us in any way. The problem is, though, that the shows mentioned touch us in primal ways, and so they can never be just commentary: mob hits, carnage, adultery, rampant alcoholism, or what have you all move us, in small ways. We like to pretend we’re tough enough to place everything, from the most maudlin part of a TV show to the most horrific event in “offscreen” life, in perspective. And, in fact, daily life demands that, increasingly. We keep up, steadily, with whatever happens outside of ourselves: The text messages. The emails. The Tweets. The Facebook posts. The Youtube videos. The gossip. The commentary on the gossip. The TV shows. The commentary on the TV shows. And onwards, until whatever happens in the “real” world is inconsequential until it becomes absorbed, translated into a language we recognize, posted somewhere, with a photo, or better yet, slipped into a Tweet. In the current social context, a television drama that asked its viewers to follow, for an extended period of time, a series of events in the lives of well-drawn, well-acted characters who weren’t gangsters, drug dealers, or ad executives from a decade largely unknown to said viewers wouldn’t have much of a chance. Why? Because it would provide no opportunity to escape. In a world in which escape—from the self, ultimately—is a goal shared by many, such a show would be decidedly, for lack of a better word, unsexy. I will admit that I’m happy to live in a time when such brilliant, staggeringly accomplished shows as those described above are on television—and yet, at some times, I’m also terrified at what lies ahead.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

This article is related to: Max Winter, Television


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