Back in February, way before Lena Dunham’s Girls flooded the airwaves with dicussions about race and Hollywood, the AV Club’s Ryan McGee wrote about how the Sopranos may have been the beginning in the decline of U.S. episodic television. Months later, I still find myself in agreement with what he had to say about how television drama now are more novelistic in a way, or installments:
This isn’t merely a semantic difference that paints lipstick on the same pig. It’s a fundamentally different way of viewing the function of an individual building block of a season, or series, of television. Calling The Sopranos a novelistic approach to the medium means praising both its new approach to television and its long-form storytelling. But HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself. Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel. That’s not to put one above the other. It’s simply meant to illuminate that each piece of art has to accomplish different things. HBO’s apparent lack of awareness of this difference has filtered into its product, and also filtered into the product of nearly every other network as well.
Writing wise, I agree with him regarding the fact that having so little happen in an episode, only to pay off later can be considered a stall tactic — especially in shows that hinge on mystery and forward action. There’s only so much teasing of information that a viewer can stand before throwing their hands up and going “BEHOLD! THE LACK OF FUCKS I GIVE!” and going off to watch something else.
What I wanted to say as a viewer, is that these shows are also extremely exhausting to watch. They’re daunting. There’s a reason why I haven’t started The Wire, Treme, Breaking Bad, Lost, or any of the other U.S. dramas out there — it’s intimidating.
Gone are the days where you can watch any one episode, get a sense of the overarching plot (With the A-Team, it was four soldiers of fortune, on the run from the military police, helping people; Leverage is a bunch of con artists punching rich people in the neck.) and figure out whether or not you were in for the next episode.
Now it feels like you need a primer on all the characters, know their relationships and understand the various relationships and their complexities before you even consider watching the show.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for that. I don’t want to have to watch a marathon of a show to get be able to discuss it in detail with other people. I don’t want to have to need to read a primer on a show before I start viewing it. That sounds like college to me, and while I liked college, I have bills to pay, a child to wrangle and other day to day activities to deal with.
So I don’t start watching those shows. I can’t deal with the commitment that they are demanding. I’m not sure if I want a long-term relationship with Mad Men. I just want to know if I’m interested in seeing another episode. Knowing that I have to learn about everyone’s backstory just turns me off. It’s why I don’t watch soap operas anymore. I don’t have time to keep up with everything.
What’s bothersome also is the idea that you’re not a true fan of storytelling or television unless you love those shows. It’s like everyone telling me that I haven’t truly read a book until I read Tolstoy or Austen. Or that I’m not a music fan unless I like some obscure group that specializes in marrying the sound of early hip-hop with folk blues and Tuvan throat singing.
Television can be enlightening, challenging and glorious entertainment. But having all these dramas follow The Sopranos’ playbook, I feel like not only are writers hampering themselves by not practicing the art of brevity, but that television has become a marathon sport. A sport which honestly, I never excelled at.