20 May 2010

Treasure Island

How TV serials achieved the status of art

In June 1985, TV Guide published a cover story called “Why Hill Street Blues is Irresistible.” It was written by Joyce Carol Oates. The police drama’s fifth season had finished airing a few weeks earlier, and Oates could hardly believe what she had seen. She began by reminding her readers what TV was usually like: “Television was entertaining, often highly diverting, but not intellectually or emotionally stimulating, like serious literature. Until a few years ago, my husband and I did not even own a set.” But Hill Street Blues changed all that. Oates called the show “a forum for timely, provocative issues,” with a diverse cast, moral complexity, and “Dickensian” inner-city blight. She also mentioned, in a paragraph that NBC’s programming executives must have been happy to read, that it was “one of the few television programs watched by a fair percentage of my Princeton colleagues.” Today, Oates’s colleagues don’t just watch television. They write books about The Sopranos (at least twenty so far), and teach courses (at Harvard, next year) on The Wire. Her article is a blueprint for what is now a thirty-years-long love affair between television and the intellectual class. 

Hill Street Blues elicited the response it did by changing the way stories were told in prime time. Up through the second half of the 1970s, prime time television was episodic. Each episode of a show like Dragnet introduced a narrative and then resolved that narrative in time for the closing credits. Jack Webb, Lucille Ball, Starsky, Hutch—from week to week these characters reappeared on the screen as though newly born, blissfully unburdened of everything but the flickering present. By the early 80s, though, it was clear that something needed to change. The arrival of pay and cable television stations, as well as home video equipment and rental chains, had eaten away at ratings, depressing network television viewership by just over 3% between 1977 and 1982. ABC, CBS, and NBC needed to inspire new kinds of loyalty in their audiences. They did it by making the stories longer, and by giving their characters memories and futures.

Hill Street Blues stretched out storylines over several episodes or even entire seasons, and used its large cast of cops, lawyers, and spouses to stack tangled plots on top of one another. The show also introduced the single-camera style to prime time, trading the usual trio of stationary shots for a mobile point of view that could slide erratically from one character or storyline to another and then back again. It was slow going at first: “My wife is confused,” one programming director complained, “and she is a smart broad.” But producers Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll were careful to keep things under control—no more than four stories were allowed to be going at once, for example—and in its second and third seasons Hill Street Blues was the highest-rated series on NBC. Its narrative innovations have since given us St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks, Miami Vice, L.A. Law, The X-Files, NYPD Blue, E.R., Homicide: Life on the Street, The West Wing, Six Feet Under,  Alias, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and 24. We also have The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost. Through serialization, a medium of popular entertainment became a medium of popular Art.

Popular serial fictions did not get their start with NBC. Many of the nineteenth century’s now-canonical European novels were originally serial works, published chapter by chapter in magazines or newspapers and consumed with the same sustained enthusiasm that now characterizes television viewing. Dickens published almost all his fiction in monthly “numbers,” bound volumes that included advertisements, illustrations, and a synopsis of the previous month’s installment along with a preview of the installment to come. In France, serialization happened in the feuilleton section of daily papers. In both countries, readers had to “keep up” with their favorite novels. In London, crowds gathered in front of shop windows to read as an employee held the new Dickens and turned pages, and Zola’s publishers mounted advertising campaigns for Au Bonheur des Dames that blanketed Parisian streets in posters. These are some of industrial Europe’s first media “events.”

Today, we study nineteenth century novels as whole texts, and as a result we don’t think about how they were originally read and written. Novelists, for one thing, wrote on deadline. When Dickens produced The Pickwick Papers in thirty-two page installments, it wasn’t because he preferred thirty-two pages to thirty-one or thirty-three, but because that’s how many pages the Fourdrinier cylindrical paper-making machine could impress at once. Serialization also came to shape plot itself: the end of chapter cliff-hanger (which could be called the “to be continued” effect) was invented to ensure that today’s readers would be tomorrow’s readers as well. Accustomed to working quickly and efficiently, many of these writers became very prolific. One of Balzac’s detractors called him a “machine à romans,” and he had a point: John Updike, one of the twentieth century’s paradigmatic prolific writers, managed twenty-eight novels in his life, falling short of Balzac’s total by nearly seventy.

It wasn’t until some years into the twentieth century that the novel became a venerated literary form. In the nineteenth century, the impression that serial novelists were performing the artistic equivalent of industrial manufacture kept self-conscious readers at an embarrassed arm’s length. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen illustrated the novel’s cultural lowness by ventriloquizing one of its readers:

“I am no novel reader,” “I seldom look into novels;” “Do not imagine that I often read novels;” “It is really very well for a novel,” —such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss —–?” “Oh, it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame.” 

Substitute a few nouns, switch out the word “read” for “watch,” and this sounds just like Joyce Carol Oates. Even as late as 1884, Henry James could refer to the general feeling that “a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.”

From the outset, prime time serial dramas were after cultural prestige. In part, they needed to cover up the fact that their innovations had embarrassing origins. Complicated serial narratives had been a feature of daytime television for years, with shows like Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life running continuously for many decades. As Bochco and Kozoll knew, however, soap operas were for bored housewives, people with nothing better to do. Prime time was for the busily employed, people who invested their leisure time with consideration and care because there was so little of it to invest, people for whom leisure choices were potentially embarrassing and therefore loaded with social import. Hill Street Blues hid its narrative ancestry by crafting an aesthetic completely at odds with the romantic fabulism of soap operas. In the show’s opening credits, police cruisers move through a bleak, slushy, urban waste; and the pilot episode had drug addicts and prostitutes, as well as the deaths (later reversed due to audience protests) of major characters. This is the hard-nosed, gritty authenticity for which so many police, law, and medical dramas have been praised in the last thirty years: televisual realism. The fact that this realism is often more about style than “reality” has not blunted its effectiveness as an advocate for television’s respectability. As the popularity of Hill Street Blues grew, NBC executives were surprised and happy to see that the fan letters they received were, as the scholar Todd Gitlin reported, lengthy, literate—even typed.

The cultural prestige of serial dramas has since appreciated to such an extent that Oates’s TV Guide story is now out of date. It is no longer a smart social move to brag about not owning a television. These days we apologize for not keeping up. What’s helped serial dramas get to this point, however, has been the willingness of their producers and professional appreciators to denigrate the medium as though they were not a part of it. In a single interview with The New York Times, Sopranos creator David Chase told Virginia Heffernan that “Television is at the base of a lot of our problems,” including terrorism. He added that television “trivializes everything,” that he had always really dreamed of working in film, but also that “The Sopranos has been the best creative experience of my life.” Is it like two different people are talking here, but what’s really going on is just a personalized version of his network’s schizophrenic slogan, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” 

Talking down to television may have been a luxury for Chase, whose show enjoyed high ratings for the duration of its run. But David Simon’s police drama The Wire (also for HBO) only attracted a devoted audience, not a large one, and so there was usually more at stake when he talked to reporters. “Since the show was always fighting for its life,” he said in an interview after the show’s fifth season, “I needed to provoke the media to address the show in ways that would argue for its relevance … I needed the ink … I did a lot of interviews and said a lot of shit.”

That he did. He seems to have accepted every interview request that reached him during the show’s run (including mine for a class paper, in junior year of college) He would tell many of his interviewers a story about pitching The Wire to HBO executives as “the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television.” (This quote is remarkable. You might expect to hear this kind of auteur boilerplate coming from film directors, but Simon had actually helped to produce one of those “horseshit” procedurals in the nineties: Homicide: Life on the Street.) But while The Wire surpasses its predecessors in social scope, political acuity, and (especially) linguistic brilliance, it looks, sounds, and feels a lot like any number of other police dramas. It even includes a romance between a lieutenant and a city prosecutor. This isn’t strictly realistic, of course—lawyers can’t only date cops—but it lets the audience know what kind of show they’re watching. Simon never mentions these earlier shows, though, except to insult them: “There were no models for us in TV,” he said, which is just not true. Instead, he talked about Balzac, and his reviewers, like Oates in the 80s, called The Wire “Dickensian.” That he consistently talked this way about television in the face of poor ratings tells us something about how serial dramas have been winning a cultural place for themselves. Back in the 1990s, when Homicide was thought to be one of the most intelligent shows around (and it really was pretty good), PBS produced a fawning behind-the-scenes documentary called Anatomy of a Homicide. Could the show survive, the documentary asked, “without dumbing down?” With its media campaign so finely tuned to the show’s cultural status, Homicide had little to worry about. It stayed on the air for seven seasons, and has since enjoyed a handsomely produced DVD release.

In the nineteenth century, serial novels worked hard to accommodate themselves to industrial daily life. As the bourgeois workday rigidified into something like a nine-to-five, leisure time became repetitive as well. Serialization allowed people to set aside time for reading at evenly spaced intervals, and thus helped to keep the alternating sequence of work and leisure running smoothly along. Interruptions in the publication of a serial work could be very upsetting. When Dickens failed to produce an installment of Pickwick in June 1837, his publishers sent out notices all over, and the July number included an explanation refuting rumors that he had gone insane and died. Apparently, readers could not have imagined a less catastrophic explanation for the interruption of their favorite novel. 

Reading carved out little havens for itself in the workday as well. In Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola’s department store workers become so “engrossed in their newspaper’s serial novel” that they don’t notice the terrible food they’ve been served for lunch. On the emerging railways, reading became an almost obligatory element of the daily commute, to the extent that French physicians at an 1860 congress observed that “one rarely sees members of a certain social class embark on a journey without first purchasing the means by which they can enjoy this pastime.” 

It was a historical moment that taught everyone and everything how to circulate, and novels, picking up on the era’s new forms of mobility, began to adopt them as representational tools. Balzac, Dickens, and Zola all seem allergic to stasis. In Lost Illusions, the aspiring poet Lucien Chardon learns that circulation is the key to social and literary success. Balzac, who struggled in obscurity until he started going to parties, hates the lesson but knows it’s a good one: 

Lucien was waiting for some stroke of luck which did not come off. In Paris, such luck only comes to people who move around a great deal: the number of relationships increases the chances of success in every sphere.

As the literary arm of the industrial economy, serial publication arranged texts, fictional narratives, and readers in such a way that each started behaving like the others. Moving from place to place as no people had ever moved in human history, readers encountered characters who generated meaning only by moving through their own fictional worlds, and the disposable newspapers and magazines that made these literary encounters possible were regularly passed on from reader to reader. Balzac, for one, understood that the literary industry’s parts were all imitating one another, and wove metaphors out of them. When Lucien returns from Paris in humiliation, with only debts and a ridiculous outfit to show for his former idealisms, one of the town residents delivers a line that isn’t nearly famous enough: “He’s not a poet, that young man. He’s a serial novel!”

On television, serial narrative has been successfully deployed across many genres—police drama, medical drama, political drama, science fiction, fantasy, legal drama, family chronicle, sports drama—and yet the form has developed to include some common traits that must speak to the post-industrial era just as the nineteenth century novel’s figures of circulation spoke to its newly industrial readers. To put it concisely: the last three decades’s worth of serial drama have given us fictional worlds that are increasingly, often exclusively, professionalized. Think about the sly joke embedded in the double meaning of the word “family” in The Sopranos. For thirty years, we’ve been watching television in which characters turn to their coworkers, not their families, for empathy, love, and support. To the extent that their relatives do come on screen they often feel like intruders. When Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s marriage collapsed in the fourth episode of The West Wing, it was supposed to be a terrible blow, but viewers felt it as a relief: finally, Leo would be able to focus on what mattered. He even said as much. “It’s not more important than your marriage,” Leo’s wife says, meaning his job. “It is more important than my marriage, right now,” he says. “These few years while I’m doing this, yes, it’s more important than my marriage.” His coworkers—also his only friends, because of the hours they all work—were attractive, articulate people who always had time to check in on one another as they rushed from one crisis to the next. Who could possibly disagree with Leo’s decision? Who wouldn’t give up everything to work in that White House? 

The idea that the workplace could be characterized by familial warmth was pushed to the point of parody in the Homicide episode “Night of the Dead Living.” Although it aired in the middle of the show’s first season, it had been written as the season finale, and its elevated emotional pitch suggests an effort on the writers’s part to make their themes clear. The episode takes place on the graveyard shift, as officers work through “the hottest night of the year” with no air conditioning. Fortunately (and weirdly, given the heat), the Homicide Squad’s phones are silent on this particular night. One officer even marvels aloud at the fact that nobody’s getting murdered. The odd urban peace leaves the show’s characters free to attend to personal concerns. They talk through family problems, call home to loved ones (who never appear on-screen), and lounge decadently in one another’s company. The hour is soundtracked by soft music that wafts through the station on a little radio, and this helps to heighten the atmosphere of emotional intimacy. In what’s played as the episode’s central event, someone discovers an abandoned infant on the station steps. They feed it milk from a latex glove and line a desk drawer with blankets: the domestic tableau is complete. At shift’s end, with the sun rising over Baltimore, everyone heads up to the roof and cools off with a garden hose. With coworkers like these, relatives become a lot easier to do without. In a later episode, as Detective John Munch’s fourth ex-wife leaves the station, he turns to his partner, Steve Crosetti, and asks, “Do you think I’m not cut out for the domestic life?” Steve replies, “Guys like you and me … work is where we shine.” 

Work is the televised serial drama’s great obsession, and it is not coincidental that these shows have aired during a period in which the boundaries separating work and leisure time have more or less disappeared. Between 1969 and 1987, the average American work year increased by 163 hours—the equivalent of an extra month’s labor—and today nearly three quarters of Americans with full-time jobs follow a “non-standard” work schedule, a sociologist’s way of saying that most people now work at nights, or at home, in addition to their nine-to-five. To the charge that serial dramas have gone passively along with or even encouraged the disintegration of the work-leisure boundary, serial dramas could only plead guilty. But it’s not like they didn’t have their reasons. Cultural objects that attack the fundamental mechanisms of their viewers’s daily lives do not often become popular cultural objects. 

Serial television has dramatized the professionalization of the domestic sphere while simultaneously imagining, in a more or less hopeful way, that the professional sphere might be domesticated in return. There is hardly any unsatisfying labor to be found on these shows, even the ones we call “gritty,” “authentic,” or “bleak.” This is an effect of the kinds of work you usually see on television. Police officers, doctors, lawyers: who could doubt the importance of these workers to the maintenance of the democratic social fabric? Even in the face of unconcerned or incompetent superiors, characters take solace in the fact that the job itself gestures toward a kind of civic ideal. In one episode of The Wire, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels tries to explain his lack of political ambition to his wife, who thinks he could be earning more on the city council: “I love the job, Marla. I can’t help it.” In the end, it’s unsurprising that these were the shows to provoke the emergence of serious television criticism: a critic’s job is literally to transform everyone else’s leisure activities into interpretive work. “It’s worth the effort,” one reviewer wrote of The Wire, adding, with a hint of panic in his voice, “not because it is good for you but because it is fantastic entertainment.”

While these shows have dominated network programming since the 1980s, it’s only in the last decade that critics and viewers have begun to think of artistically ambitious dramas as natural to the medium. We no longer treat them as miraculous aberrations. A change began to occur at the end of the 90s, as producers and writers went consciously looking for the internal limits of the serial form. They began to investigate the extent to which certain traditional elements of realistic fictional narrative—plot, the representation of individual characters and social worlds, etc.—could be developed in a multi-season work, and they won acclaim and got their shows renewed by advertising their ambition to anyone who would listen. Those series that actually did find what they were looking for, that managed to articulate one or another facet of televisual narrative to the fullest extent, brought the contours of the form itself into view for the first time. Three of those series are The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost

The Sopranos demonstrated the full possibilities offered by serial narrative for the representation of an individual character. Tony is the “roundest” character, in E. M. Forster’s sense of the word, to ever appear on television. In the first half of the show’s pilot episode, events are presented as flashbacks while Tony narrates to his psychiatrist, and this frame produces a narrative logic by which other characters and their actions only become meaningful to the extent that they illuminate Tony’s psyche. The show fanned out eventually and allowed other characters to generate their own smaller worlds of meaning, but James Gandolfini’s gravitational pull is what makes The Sopranos coherent. Without him the show literally stops. The series ended at a diner, the Soprano family (biological) eating onion rings while Journey played out of a jukebox. A man in a jacket walked into the bathroom, tracked ominously by the camera. The front door jingled, Tony looked up, and suddenly everything cut to black. Many fans read this cut as Tony’s death, an interpretation that David Chase has never disputed. This is the complete identification of camera with character: no more Tony, no more Sopranos. Novels have trouble keeping up with this level of character description. Even slower readers are unlikely to need eighty-six hours to get through Anna Karenina or Ulysses, but that is how much time Tony Soprano spent explaining himself to millions of people. Tony’s funniest line in the pilot, because it is a complete lie, is, “It’s impossible for me to talk to a therapist.” He loves talking to a therapist. By the end of the episode, he has made a breakthrough, and he is crying.

David Simon described The Wire as a rejoinder to television’s endless stream of unambitious cop shows, but HBO’s other great series was also a reply to The Sopranos. As David Chase constructed his large, detailed interior architectures, Simon got a whole city into sixty episodes. Each season focused on a new professional group—first cops and drug dealers, then longshoremen, city politicians, teachers, and finally journalists—and then used dialogue to arrange them into coherent structures. The Wire has more than 200 named characters, and by the series’ end all of them seem to have talked to one another. The decision to use dialogue to promote liberal political views may not be a big surprise, but it’s well-suited to television. Because TV screens are so tiny, the medium tends to restrain the development of recognizable visual styles. Nobody remembers a favorite shot from a TV show, but everybody remembers a favorite line, and The Wire is full of favorite lines. It is television’s great linguistic achievement. Last December, a video circulated online: “The Top 100 Quotes from ‘The Wire’.” I enjoyed all ten minutes, even though my own favorite got left out:

In the first scene of the fourth season, a teenage girl called Snoop walks into a hardware store to buy a nail gun (which she will use to board up row houses with murder victims inside). A white, middle-aged employee helps her choose: “You might want to consider the powder-actuated tool. The Hilti DX460 MX or the Simpson PTP—these two are my Cadillacs. Everything else is second-best, sorry to say.” Snoop goes for the Hilti, and hands the employee $800 in cash for a $660 nail gun (“So what, man? You earned that bump like a motherfucker, man. Keep that shit.”) She heads back to the car, where her coworker Chris is waiting. “The man said if you want to shoot nails this here’s the Cadillac,” she tells him. “He meant Lexus, but he ain’t know it.” Chris asks if the new gun will hold a battery charge. “Man fuck a charge,” Snoop says. “This here’s the gun-powder-activated, 27-caliber, full-auto, no kick-back nail-throwin’ mayhem, man. Shit right here is tight.” By this point Chris is laughing. It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t just about the white fetishization of black speech; the best thing about The Wire is that everyone gets lines like this. “He meant Lexus, but he ain’t know it”: it’s a show that makes it worth your while to learn what other people are saying.

Lost is at least as ambitious as these first two shows, and sometimes it is just as good. If it has an axis—like Tony for The Sopranos or Baltimore for The Wire—it is the history of serial television. Lost is the first show to openly appreciate its predecessors as a body of works, and over five seasons (with the sixth airing now) it has pushed serial narrative to the point of derangement. Bochco and Kozoll’s original restraint—four stories at once, at most—is gone. 

The show starts off like a scripted Survivor: a plane headed to L.A. crashes on a mysterious island. The survivors build huts, learn to hunt, and go exploring. But soon they run into a polar bear, and also a French hermit, and then other people too, and bit by bit the show’s original question (Can these people survive?) is replaced by a few larger ones: What is going on? Does this island have magical powers? Does human life have meaning, or a purpose? Carleton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the show’s executive producers, use rotating sets of flashback sequences to explain motives and actions, and in the third season they began flashing forward too, into the future. Eventually characters start traveling through time, which renders temporal distinctions more or less meaningless. Keep in mind that temporal distinctions are theoretically what serialization is all about.

Despite this derangement, Lost manages to be a show that successfully depends on the plot twist. The show has no visual style other than a moneyed one (the two-part pilot was the most expensive in television history). Its dialogue can be ridiculous; somebody yells “Put the gun down!” in pretty much every episode. True, there is some excellent acting, but there is also some really terrible acting. The payoff, with Lost, lies entirely in things happening, even when you have no idea what those things mean. Here is an example: 

In the first season, a number of storylines revolve around a locked hatch, which someone discovers in the jungle some distance inland from the cast’s beachside camp. A character named John Locke becomes obsessed with getting it open, and spends long nights looking helplessly at its tiny, darkened window. Near the season’s end, with everything falling to pieces (kidnappings, explosions, death), Locke runs to the hatch and pounds on it, screaming in existential anguish. And a light comes on. The first time I saw this scene, I literally got goosebumps all over my body. Its effect is magical. A few seasons later, we learn that this literal and metaphorical illumination was actually meaningless; the character who turned on the light explains that he was just going for a bathroom break. But this does nothing to diminish the moment. The important thing is that something happened. The important thing is that a light went on. 

While this is going on, Lost also dismantles (or at least ignores) the boundaries separating serial television’s well-established collection of genres. A typical episode may begin with an emergency medical procedure, like E.R. in a jungle hut. But then someone will discover a bomb, or a computer station, or a plane in a tree, and lead Jack and his still-recovering patient on a police-style chase. Then someone will be interrogated and tortured, à la 24, until a creature made of thick smoke bursts out of the ground and interrupts everything. Then, flashing variously forward and backward, we spend time with the Korean mob or African drug-runners. Then everybody time-travels, gets sick in the process, and needs Jack to put the gun down and become a doctor again. By now, even casual television viewers are more or less familiar with the sets of possible plot twists that belong to each particular genre, but Lost keeps things suspenseful by trading one set of narrative rules for another five or six times per episode. Lost provides the delirious feeling of watching serial television swallow itself whole.

Lost is unusually unrealistic for a serial drama. Even Battlestar Galactica tempered its more fantastic elements (like being in space) with earth-bound politics. But Lost never needed to deploy realism in some life-or-death struggle for cultural respectability because its predecessors had already won not only the battles but the entire war. In the eyes of Lindelof and Cuse, realism is not a necessity, just another available device. This makes it a lot of fun to wonder how seriously Lost wants to be taken. The show keeps hinting at philosophical riches buried deep within the narrative pyrotechnics. Characters walk around with names like Desmond David Hume or Danielle Rousseau, and every so often a copy of Ulysses or Fear and Trembling will slide into view. It’s unclear—still! with only one episode to go!—whether some big payoff awaits at the end of the finale, or whether the waiting is the payoff itself. You watch Lost with the weird, mostly happy feeling that it is watching you back.

This is the final season of Lost, and while new dramas will continue to find both enthusiastic fans and critical acclaim, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something important is winding down. After all, the great dramas of the last decade are great precisely because they found certain limits of the form, because they figured out what it was possible to do with the available tools. That leaves future shows with few places to go, even when they are excellent (Breaking Bad) or promising (Treme). There just isn’t much new ground available. Mad Men is our current would-be aspirant to television greatness, but that show looks to me like a Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together from bits of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, dressed up and staggering around in a Banana Republic suit. We will someday be embarrassed by the amount of attention paid to that show during its run; perhaps we already are.

Big serial dramas are also losing ground to reality television. Actually, pretty much everything is losing ground to reality television. Reality shows are unbelievably cheap to produce, and yet money alone can’t completely explain their proliferation (otherwise game shows would be proliferating just as quickly). Their success seems in part the result of their expression of a certain new kind of truth: If the serial drama imagined work taking on the characteristics of domestic life as a response to the disintegration of leisure time, reality TV dramatizes the maintenance of the public self as an experience of labor. Everyone knows that reality TV shows are not actually competitions about cooking, or singing, or losing weight. They are competitions about becoming famous. This is why Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert are American Idol winners, even though they both finished in second place. Reality shows may be organized around groups of coworkers, relatives, or strangers who stop being polite, but the only unit that matters is the individual. The number one reality TV cliché is, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” What’s left unsaid is what the speaker actually did come to make, which is the celebrity self.

Genres looking to stay relevant in a world dominated by reality shows have begun to borrow from them (significantly, the serial drama has not been doing this). The sitcom, especially, has transformed itself in recent years. Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation have abandoned the three-camera setup of their predecessors, and now look more or less like reality TV: handheld cameras, quick zooms, and character interviews straight out of The Real World‘s confessional booth. Even on sitcoms that haven’t explicitly adopted the reality style, it is possible to detect the influence of reality TV’s assumptions about individuals and their social relations (or lack of them). On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney are supposed to be best friends, but the reality is that both are incurable narcissists. To a certain extent, their friendship is specifically about letting the other’s self-involvement go unchallenged. “You’re not even listening, are you?” Liz says, after trying to give Jenna sensible advice. “Poop. Monkey butt.” “No,” Jenna replies, with an affectionate sigh. “You’re a good friend, and thank you.”

Of course humor is almost always about making fun of things, but the previous wave of network sitcoms—Friends, Cheers, The Cosby Show—did not aspire to the kinds of perfect cynicism that these new comedies are after. Ross, Chandler, Rachel, and all the rest made jokes at one another’s expense, but mostly they loved spending time with each other in that big, beautiful apartment. When a character walked through the door in Cheers, dead on his feet and loaded with problems, you knew that those problems could be laughed away. Even Seinfeld, criticized for nihilism during its run—it was the “show about nothing,” after all—now comes off as charmingly obsessed with the little difficulties of social life.

The new sitcoms didn’t come here to make Friends, however, and they have also reversed the serial drama’s sentimental take on the meaning of labor. To the dramas that said you could find satisfaction and dignity in your underpaid government job, The Office said No: You actually work at a paper company in the internet age, and your coworkers are mostly irredeemable psychos. (30 Rock has similar thoughts on coworkers.) To the dramas that went further, that claimed your coworkers were now your family, Arrested Development had an even better answer: Fine. But your family? These people are psychos too—in jail, in debt, in league with Saddam Hussein, even—and now you must also live with them, all the time. In the second season’s opening episode, the Bluth family’s lone sane person, Michael, abandons his family for a new life. “This is it boy, we are free,” he tells his son as they roll down the highway. “And the best part of it? Not working for the family anymore.” But of course the show needs less than two minutes to drag him back home, escape being the silliest fantasy of all. This is a vision of work, family—maybe the social bond in general, even—gleefully desacralized. If The West Wing’s President Bartlett will go down in history as Television’s Greatest Boss, then The Office’s Michael Scott is his evil twin, ventriloquizing the insecurities of middle management in ways that dramas never dared.

Of course, some habits can be hard to give up completely. Parks and Recreation, a funny show with a cast of local government bureaucrats, is about people whose job is to produce leisure space for other people. And while The Office is mostly a show about the daily humiliations of post-Industrial corporate work (it’s even set in a dying coal and iron town), its central couple sees things a little differently. Jim and Pam know that what holds them together isn’t money, or labor, or history. They just had a baby: what holds them together is love.

Image: Actors from the TV show Lost at the 12th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, 2006.


It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »

  • Richard Beck
    • Ground Zero, May 1, 2011

      I saw a headline about the announcement on a newspaper website, and then I turned on the TV, where Geraldo Rivera broke the news that Bin Laden had been killed. “Oh, happy day!” he said. “I’m blessed to be able to report this story.” More…