Killer Year–The Class of 2007


The Golden Age
December 11, 2006, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Marcus Sakey

When I was in high school, I proudly displayed a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on the back of my ’86 LeBaron. It was an honest sentiment–I’d been in love with books my whole life, and most television was such formulaic dreck that I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed to stop someone stealing mine. For years the only reason I turned on my TV was to watch movies.

Man oh man, how things have changed.

I’m not a scholar on the subject. I don’t know if it was the rise of HBO, the advent of Tivo, or the diversification brought by cable. But somewhere along the way, the Gods of Television noticed that if they treated their audience as intelligent people, ratings went up.

Now we’re in a Golden Age where there is a significant amount of television that is arguably as literary as books. And for the first time, I don’t feel dirty watching two hours of TV instead of reading.

My new love–and I realize I’m late to the party on this one–is The Wire, created by David Simon, writer of the brilliant HOMICIDE, the finest book I’ve read on the daily reality of cops. The show is basically the book brought to motion and given a narrative arc, and it’s fucking brilliant. Rich, textured, uncompromising, dramatic without being melodramatic, honest, brutal, and addictive as hell. It is, frankly, so good that it tops a number of the books I’ve read this year. And as a novelist, those aren’t words that tumble easily out of my mouth.

Or look at Battlestar Galactica, which could have been a one-season cheesefest, but instead distinguished itself as one of the savviest, most morally complicated shows ever aired–while still being entertaining as hell. We have space battles and operatic heroism, but also subtle explorations of politics, religion, and the durability of our principles when tested in a brutal enough crucible. After all, this is a show that reframes our current political situation with us, humanity, as the insurgents, overwhelmed by a vastly more powerful force that claims to be there for our benefit.

When was the last time Everybody Loves Raymond helped you relate to the mentality of a terrorist?

The Shield. Rome. 24. The West Wing. Firefly. Deadwood.

Which leads to an interesting question. Books are obviously having an impact on television. The Wire, for instance, is written not only by David Simon, but also by Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price. The result has been intelligent, challenging television that remains entertaining as hell.

So the question is, what impact will television of this caliber have on books?

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4 Comments so far
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The last episiode of The Wire IV was
the saddest hour I’ve ever spent with
any narrative in any medium. Sad, true,
brilliant. Nobody gets out alive.

Comment by patti abbott

I agree, Marcus. Television has never been better than it is right now. Admittedly, there’s a lot of dreck still out there, but there are some amazing programs, too. I thinkBattlestar Galactica might be one of the best shows ever. It is simply brilliant. This new breed of shows are not afraid of being morally ambiguous. The characters are complicated, like real people. And – this is a personal indulgence – I absolutely love Heroes. It has such the opportunity to be one of those horrible shows from the past, but it’s not. Comic book, yes, but intelligent and engaging…of course, comic books are both those things, too.

I cringe when I think about the cardboard cut outs of the 70s and 80s – Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man, the whole cast of The A Team, and David Hasselhoff in absolutely anything.

But your question was about how TV effects the caliber of books… In a way, I think the question is actually a bit broader. The writers of today grew up watching television and movies. When I write, I think very cinematically. I think about all the great films I’ve seen the past. Now, I also think about the fantastic shows I see on TV. So I do think television and the movies have a direct effect on the quality of what’s being written. In a very real way, it’s the competition, and you always want to be better than the competition.

Comment by Brett Battles

For myself, I have to admit I haven’t seen a lot of the great television you’re talking about. For instance, I’ve never seen a single episode of The Wire, or Deadwood, or The West Wing. I’ve only seen one or two episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

Now, this is not the result of any high-falutin’ stand against television or something. It’s partly an effect of time and focus, plus my tendency to avoid extended serial stories on TV. I watched the first year of 24, for example, as I enjoyed it, but it started to become something of an ordeal, and missing an episode was a real pain in the ass. I’m terrible at sitting down at the same time every week, so I ended up missing something and getting frustrated as I try to re-group midstream.

Yet, of course, there is the magic of DVD season sets now. After struggling through 24 season 1 on broadcast television, I ignored season 2 completely, then watched it on DVD. And it was pretty damn good. I thought season 1 was better though, and I haven’t returned for subsequent seasons. Maybe I’m missing out, but we’re talking a huge commitment here, and there are lots of things to watch and read.

I only have basic cable, so I don’t have access to the HBO wonders as they come out, but obviously I could go back and pick up DVDs. In fact, I did just that with Lost. I ignored season 1 on broadcast, then got the DVDs. I loved it. Given my problems meeting a broadcast schedule, I held my breath and waited until season 2 was available on DVD as well. And it kinda fizzled for me. Not bad, but the promise of season 1 just wasn’te there. I managed to struggle through three episodes of season 3 on broadcast, basically hated it, and haven’t looked back. Except I admit to a great disapointment. Lost was a book that started great, wandered for a bit with flashes of a return to brilliance, and then simply fell apart. Sigh.

Or take a series like Arrested Development, which was simply too smart for broadcast television. It died not of bad writing, acting, or story, but of neglect by network executives too stupid to treat it with the respect it deserved. A series I loved died for no good reason. Thanks for nothing, television.

Which brings up another reason I’ve avoided the omigawd great television bandwagon. These long complicated stories are a huge investment in time and emotional commitment, and seeing them fizzle out is just not something I want to get caught up in.

Or Firefly, a great show never able to find a big enough audience to sustain itself.

I only have so much time, and I give it up to television fairly begrudgingly, especially after not being all that impressed by some long term offerings, or disappointed by the loss of great shows not nearly finished. Whither Firefly, whither Arrested Development? Sigh.

Now, by all accounts The Wire is perhaps the most perfect television show ever, satisfying and powerful and brilliant from stem to stern. So probably I will give it a look. I’m not opposed to this great television, but I will probably wait this one out until all five (planned) seasons are available on DVD.

As for some of the others, I’ve got a wait-and-see attitude. Heroes may be great right now, but it’s young and there’s plenty of time for some network executive to fuck it over.

I do wade in to the middle of other shows that are less bound to the long term story arc, of course. But I’m so sporadic I’m hardly the ideal viewer.

Finally, regarding the question of the impact of this kind of television on books, I’m not sure. Obviously I don’t watch enough of it myself to feel direct influence, but good story is good story. Complex themes, rich story arcs, and ambivalent characters are frequent fare in fiction. That they’ve finally made it into television over the last several years is reassuring, but I can’t guess what the long-term effect on books will be. Possibly a negative one, since consumers of these kinds of entertainment may shift from books to television if the need and desire for such richness can be met there.

Comment by Bill Cameron

What’s sad is the highest rated shows are rarely worth watching.

Simon has had to sweat it out almost every year to see if HBO was going to renew it. And yes, it is by far the best thing on television.

TV execs don’t read books. Trust me, I know.

Comment by Guyot




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