Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Viewing America

Download the full excerpt here.

Television drama


In the 21st century, the mass of men lead lives of quiet masturbation. Television is the optimum tool for that.—David Simon

Television is at the base of a lot of our problems. It trivializes everything.—David Chase

I think there are some amazing highs on television and there’s a permanence to it on some level . . . people feel less alone in a great way. It becomes part of their education. It becomes an entertainment that is substantial. They feel close to other people. They communicate with an artist. There’s light shed on their lives. They’re diverted. They are lifted from their burdens. They are entertained. As television turns into something else that part of it, whatever that is, that comes from the ancient plays, the ancient dramas, that’s not going to go away.—Matthew Weiner

Television, so much part of people’s everyday life, has tended to be dismissed, even by its practitioners, as mere entertainment, as if entertainment were an unworthy objective. In 1884, Henry James felt obliged to defend the novel on similar grounds. How, it was said by some, could the imagined be said to bear on reality? For him, ‘The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.’ He rejected the notion that ‘the novelist is less occupied in looking for the truth . . . than the historian’. The only obligation which may reasonably be expected of a novel beyond that, he suggested, was that it should be ‘interesting’. In a similar way, television drama, often not recognised by many as drama in so far as it is part of the continuum of the nightly schedule, has tended to be dismissed unless, imported from Britain and given the title Masterpiece Theatre, it is presumed to have the imprimatur of ‘culture’. Yet it can indeed seek to represent life, and in doing so enter the arena alongside the historian, the sociologist, the political scientist. Henry James, though, set the bar somewhat low in requiring the novel to be ‘interesting’, but perhaps ‘entertaining’ was too gross for his refined sensibility.

Most people will never see productions of the plays they study or read. They rely, instead, on the text alone, but the British playwright John McGrath has said that the text is what is left when the play has gone. The problem and triumph of theatre is that you have to be there. It is a live art, a present tense art. You were either at the party or you were not. To watch a simple recording of the event is to witness a body from which the soul has flown. Richard Eyre has recalled that Michelangelo was once asked by one of the Medici to create a snowman. It was, it was said, the most beautiful thing he ever created, but it melted with the sun. Theatre, too, exists in the moment and thereafter only in memory, but it is its evanescence that gives it its intensity, that burns it into the memory.
Television drama is the reverse, at least it has been since the invention first of video recording and then of box sets, downloads and streaming. Now, it is possible for everyone to see the production, but few have the chance to read the script. In contrast to theatre, though, television can permit a serial reality to unfold and characters to evolve over time. Initially, stories may necessitate a pause of a week, as magazine serials once required a degree of patience before the fate of a character became known. Recording technology has now closed that gap. Long-form (or ‘serial’) drama can now be watched as I tend to eat After Eight chocolates. I start meaning to have one and end up going straight through the entire box. The nineteenth century serial novel, available at first episode by episode before appearing entire, now has its counterpart, and most of the creators of the very best American drama series happily invoke those novels as their models, and not only in terms of their structure. Dickens, in particular, is referenced, along with Balzac, in so far as many of them set out to address the social and moral condition of the nation.

Download the full excerpt here.

Latest Comments

Have your say!