2014

Golden Age of the Small Screen: TV as the New Literature 

Lauren Ziegler

Katherine Thomson

Katherine Thomson

Gone are the days of the ‘idiot box’.

No longer must one suffer that despairing chore of channel surfing. No longer is television considered low brow, low budget or low quality. Hollywood actors are reportedly clamouring to get back on the silver screen, networks can’t stop throwing money at high quality shows, and weekends are now spent on the couch, binge-watching entire seasons of acclaimed television dramas.

There is little debate that the quality of television drama today far surpasses what came before it. Critics have not only coined this era a golden age for television, but are proclaiming that shows such as Breaking Bad, True Detective, Mad Men, Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones are ‘the new literature.’

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For proof, simply look no further than this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: the biggest drawcard on the bill is Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad.

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In a 2011 interview with The Observer, Salman Rushdie said that TV drama is now comparable to the novel, and that it has surpassed film as the greatest way to communicate ideas and stories. He described television as “the best of both worlds,” allowing writers the production qualities of a film, while maintaining creative freedom. “You have control in the way you never have in the cinema,” he said. “What you can do with a character and story is not at all unlike what you can do in a novel.”

Television is far more capacious than film, which immerses and ejects the viewer from an entire world in around two hours. Television drama not only benefits from creative control, but it has dozens of hours to play with, allowing ample time for stories and characters to unravel and evolve.

Fairfax National TV Editor Scott Ellis believes that television writing has reached new peaks. “All of the really good writing is moving to TV. Writers are really happy because they get to explore a storyline that’s going to take years to tell; they’re getting more funding, they have more freedom, they can do long-form writing. And the actors are really happy because they get to sink their teeth into these roles.”

But good writing is hardly a new phenomenon for television. It’s existed as long as TV itself, according to playwright and writer Katherine Thomson. “For many of us, TV was always golden,” she says. “When The Bill first came out, if you’d said, ‘Is that the new literature?’, a lot of us would have said ‘Yes’. When The Singing Detective first came out, if you’d said, ‘is that the new literature?’ We would have said ‘Yes’.”

The advent of literary T’ could also stem from a newfound acceptance of the medium. “Suddenly, people from the world of literature have discovered that good television is beautiful,” says Katherine Thomson. “It’s beautifully written by wonderful writers, equally capable of exploring the human condition as a great a novelist or poet or playwright.

“We’ve gone from people who boasted they never watch television, to the same people now unable to leave their homes or make choices about what to watch because they’re so spoiled for choice.”

Most critics agree that the golden age began in 1999, with the debut of The Sopranos. Not only did the series show off brilliant writing, but it was liberated from censorship, advertising and pressure to boost ratings. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that quality shows have burgeoned alongside advances in production technologies and social media.

Cable networks are largely responsible for the shift, having significantly released control over their productions. Writers are essentially given permission to write with the creative freedom once only enjoyed by novelists.

“HBO (Home Box Office) are like a modern-day Medici,” says Scott Ellis. “They’re sponsoring artists to do what they want, rather than telling them what to do. And they’ve reinvented television and pop culture in the process.”
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But the inevitable pitfalls to television mustn’t be forgotten. TV shows always carry the possibility of being cancelled, or worse: being extended past its use-by date. “Look at Lost,” says Scott Ellis. “They had a beginning, a middle and an end planned for that, and as soon as it got popular, the network said, ‘We need another five years,’ and it all went completely pear-shaped.”

Literature revels in being both demanding and democratic. When readers open a book, they begin a journey and they take on responsibilities. The reader has an obligation to read each page, to internalise descriptions and details, in order to learn about, and from, the characters and stories coming to life in front of them. A reader cannot begin reading a text halfway through, or choose to skip out a few chapters here and there. Serialised cable TV is similar in this sense. Game of Thrones and The Wire are not for the casual observer.

Literature also requires readers to use their imagination to create characters and settings. While there are many differences between the novel and the episode, the most obvious is that television replaces imagined worlds with filmed ones.

“TV exists in a time and space and is written for actors, who interpret to the audience,” says Katherine Thomson. “Literature is written to be played out in your mind. There’s no time and space other than what you create inside your head. I think we need both of those experiences.”

Perhaps it’s wrong to proclaim that TV is the new literature. Television to literature is not what the iPod is to the vinyl; it will never be a replacement. But television today has the capacity to be bolder and more daring than ever. Free from the restraints of advertising, censorship and ratings, writers are telling stories with the creative freedom once only reserved for the novel.
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Like Dickens, Hemingway or Austen, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos are cultural touchstones of today. It’s more than the good writing, though. What we’re seeing today is a celebration of artistic integrity and creative freedom. And it’s only getting better.

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