Tiffany Jenkins: Good TV compared to great novels

TELEVISION cannot compete with the one-on-one of literature when it comes to the revelations of the quotidian, writes Tiffany Jenkins

We are entering a golden age of television. Picture: Jon Savage
We are entering a golden age of television. Picture: Jon Savage

We are living through a Golden Age of television. Since The Sopranos debuted in 1999, one brilliant television drama series after another has kept millions of people up at night, sitting on the sofa staring at their screens.

Breaking Bad explored the line between good and evil; The Wire exposed the state of contemporary America, examining the drugs trade, the collapse of industry, the problems of the media and the education system. Mad Men stylishly reflected on social change as well as the promise and the limits of capitalism – although the last series has degenerated into a soap opera.

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And that’s not to neglect the epic True Detective, nor the eye-opening Girls, a deft depiction of young women in New York that is sharper and more realistic than Sex and The City, which itself started out as a refreshing insight into modern relationships.

By just naming some of the recent series in one paragraph, it should be obvious that television is flourishing. (I don’t include Game of Thrones, despite its popularity, because I just don’t get it).

The achievements have been so great that countless commentators have compared these new dramas to the novel.

One of the many to do so is the academic Thomas Doherty, who argues that the character and plot in the new “Arc TV” – the long-form episodic television programmes – are akin to that found in literature, such as the writing of Charles Dickens and Henry James: “The world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel, where small gestures and table manners reveal the content of a character moulded by convention, class and culture.”

These were reasonable comparisons to make, at first. Television today is consistently drawing us into rich stories that probe pertinent social questions. And never before has television looked or sounded so good – the soundtracks alone are amazing.

But comparing TV to the novel has gone too far.

The comparison has been used to give some recognition to the former, but TV needs to – and can – stand alone without reference to the novel. It’s not just that it’s repetitive to hear that these programmes are like a Henry James novel, or that Dickens would be writing series like The Wire today; it’s that it’s not true.

Most importantly of all, we are in danger of neglecting what is unique and special about the novel.

Because, of all the art forms, literature is superior. Good literature, of course, not junk.

And I am not saying switch off the gogglebox. Television is breaking new ground, and it’s more of a social experience than reading – watching the flat screen is something you want to do with your friends and family and doing so is far more fun than going to a book club.

But it’s important not to forget that the novel can do things that none of the other arts can do.

Take plot and character. All the circumstances and events in these television programmes are extreme; the kind that we recognise, sure, but ones that we don’t experience all that often. Whereas in the novel, small actions, interactions and decisions are significant in a way that they could never be on TV.

Characters in television programmes remain roughly bad or good, despite what Docherty says. In Breaking Bad, Walter White “breaks bad” by manufacturing class-A drugs, becoming a drug lord, and killing lots of people. His bad gets pretty bad. And he defeats cancer at the same time.

Whereas in The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James – an author who has his melodramatic moments – one nasty character, Gilbert Osmond, is erudite and attractive, but also cold, hard and unloving.

The finale comes when James’ heroine, Isabel Archer, a women with independent means, who can see that she has made a mistake in marrying Gilbert, remains with him through choice, a decision I continue to reflect on. Gilbert and Isabel don’t need to “break” as “bad” as Walt, to sustain our attention.

A novel that many people have read recently is Stoner by John Williams; written some time ago, in 1965, and recently rediscovered.

It is about the disappointing life of an academic in a difficult marriage. On the face of it, this does not sound like the most gripping plot. It certainly wouldn’t work on television, because not enough happens.

And yet Stoner seems to be about life itself. Somehow, this novel renders what is extraordinary and important about the most ordinary man. It is the sort of book that you pause to reflect on as you read, the sort of book that you go over, back and forth, in ways that you just don’t do with the remote control.

In Stoner, so many sentences are beautifully written. Not one word is out of place.

Whereas with television, there is so much more going on – music, sound, what the set looks like – that the viewers’ attention is on more than just the sentence in front of them.

Thus, the novel will always be more intimate – it is a dialogue between you and the author – and cerebral, as it deals with words and ideas. Television is more experiential and immersive.

We are more active when we are reading than when we are watching TV. More is left to our imagination and for us to consider when we read, than when we watch telly.

We can imagine what Isabel Archer looks like, whereas we see – and boy, do we see – what Joan in Mad Men looks like (although her case is proof that this is not always a bad thing).

In one great work of literature – Paradise Lost, by John Milton – the Son of God rejects books when Satan attempts to lure him with all the knowledge of the ancient philosophers.

So whilst it isn’t a competition, literature should have the last word: because there is no other art form that can so eloquently question itself.