All in the Family

Hill Street Blues. MTM Productions. NBC, 1981–87.

The Sopranos. Brillstein-Grey. HBO, 1999–2007.

The Wire. David Simon. HBO, 2002–08.

Lost. ABC Studios. ABC, 2004–10.

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, in the sociology department) on The Wire. Her article is a blueprint for what is now a thirty-year-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 ’70s, 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. 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 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. 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 at once, for example — and in its second and third seasons Hill Street Blues was the highest-rated series on NBC.

Popular serial fictions did not get their start with NBC. Many of the 19th 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.”

Dickens and Zola (and Balzac, Dostoevsky, and even Henry James) wrote on deadline, often producing the precise number of pages required by the technology in use — thirty-two, in Dickens’s case, because that’s how many the Fourdrinier cylindrical paper-making machine could impress at one time. Many of these authors were extremely popular and prolific, and partly for this reason self-conscious readers kept them at an embarrassed arm’s length. At the beginning of the century, Jane Austen described her characters protesting (too much) that they never read novels; near the end of it, 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.” It wasn’t until some years into the 20th century — alongside, it should be said, the advent of cinema — that the novel became a venerated literary form.

Popular serial fictions on television did not get their start from NBC, either. 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. From the outset, therefore, prime time serial dramas were after cultural prestige. Hill Street Blues hid its true 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; 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 adjunct to television’s newfound 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 narrative innovations of Hill Street Blues, and its popularity among the attractive audience of discerning and well-employed readers of the New York Times, has led in the decades since to such critically acclaimed hits as St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks, Miami Vice, LA Law, The X-Files, NYPD Blue, ER, Homicide: Life on the Street, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Alias, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, 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.

Of course it was not the shows alone that changed in the ’80s. The medium had sporadically accommodated ambitious work for decades, especially in the ’50s, when networks regularly broadcast well-acted live “teleplays” to large audiences. The cultural elevation of television that took place post–Hill Street Blues had as much to do with the audience as with the work. Joyce Carol Oates was herself a figure who straddled high art and popular culture — a much-anthologized short story writer, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, she was also the author of lurid books on boxing and Marilyn Monroe. The critics who would follow her a decade later into the practice of television appreciation were actually educated on this divide, during the age of “cultural studies.” At college, they were taught that cultural detritus — comic books, advertisements, b-movies — were as deserving of close reading as great works of art. Nothing, at the time, was a more efficient producer of cultural detritus than television. Part of why so many graduates of elite American universities in the 1980s began to take the medium so seriously was that their professors had given them permission.

But how would a “serious” approach to something be telegraphed by a card-carrying cult-stud? Cultural studies is not an academic discipline in the traditional sense; even now, half a century after Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams established the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England, there are very few cultural studies departments at American universities. Instead cultural studies hides in the shadows of other departments, especially English. This fact goes some way toward explaining TV critics’ nearly autistic obsession with comparing their new favorite show to their old favorite literature. Mad Men equals John Cheever, an “existential” episode of The Sopranos is like a Beckett play, cop shows are Dickensian, and so on. Kozoll even once described the kinds of episode endings he liked to write for Hill Street Blues as “very Henry Jamesian,” which just makes no sense at all. Whether accurate or not, such comparisons provide for the resolution of two contradictory impulses. The first is to produce meaning out of cultural junk. The second — and this may eventually fade away, with time — is to canonize and describe the progression of culture, even junk culture, in the manner familiar to literature departments, by placing it on a continuum with past literary works.

Today, both television’s producers and consumers know how to do both, and it is easy to forget, thirty years into the industry’s self-mythologizing, just how accidental much of this shift was. Gitlin’s book Inside Prime Time records a conversation with Brandon Tartikoff, one of the executives at NBC who put Hill Street Blues on the air, in which Tartikoff discussed his rationale for giving Bochco and Kozoll their shot. The word Tartikoff picked to categorize the series wasn’t “artistic,” “boutique,” or “literate” — it was “unusual.” “You can try one of them a year,” he told Gitlin, before listing a failed dark comedy, the reality/talk hybrid Real People, and a variety series called The Big Show as other “unusual” efforts. The reason Tartikoff did not call the show “ambitious” was because the category did not exist at the time. Critics and television marketers still needed to invent it.

The cultural prestige of serial dramas has appreciated to such an extent that Oates’s TV Guide story is now hopelessly 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. The memory of TV’s time in the cultural wilderness remains very much alive for the makers of television shows, however. In an 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; and that “The Sopranos has been the best creative experience of my life.” It sounds like Chase has a split personality, but really he’s just living out his network’s schizophrenic slogan, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

Talking down to television was 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 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, during my 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 ’90s: 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 is less realistic than generic; it reminds the audience 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. 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.

And yet there is no denying that amid the social and intellectual positioning and self-congratulatory feedback loops — “We make art now!” say the network executives. “You bet you do!” say the reviewers — real spaces have opened up for ambitious television that simply did not exist thirty years ago. As executives and viewers learned to think of aesthetic ambition as natural to the medium — and as reality TV gained a foothold at the minor cable networks, eventually moving to prime time with Survivor in 2000, and threatening the entire enterprise of complex, scripted, multi-episode dramatic television — the producers learned to live up to new expectations, and do what reality TV had not yet learned to do. They began to investigate the extent to which certain traditional elements of realistic fictional narrative — plot, the representation of individual characters and social worlds, et cetera — could be deployed in a multi-season work.

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 become meaningful to the extent that they illuminate Tony’s psyche. No novel could have lavished this much attention on a single character. 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 is, “It’s impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist.” He loves talking to a psychiatrist! The show fanned out eventually, but James Gandolfini’s gravitational pull was what made The Sopranos coherent. Without him the show literally stopped. The series ended at a diner, the Soprano family (biological) eating onion rings while Journey played on the jukebox. A man in a jacket walked into the bathroom, tracked ominously by the camera. The front door jingled, Tony looked up, and the screen went black. Many fans read this 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.

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 built a single, heavily breathing man into a cathedral, Simon crammed 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 November, a video circulated online: “The Top 100 Quotes from The Wire.” I enjoyed the entire ten minutes, even though my own favorite got left out: in the first scene of the fourth season, a teenaged 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 on this board is second-best, sorry to say.” Snoop goes for the Hilti, and hands the employee $800 in cash for a $669 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 gunpowder-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 was the first show to openly appreciate its predecessors as a body of works, and over six seasons it pushed serial narrative to the point of derangement. Bochco and Kozoll’s original restraint — four stories at once, at most — disappeared completely.

The show starts off like a scripted Survivor: a plane headed to LA crashes on a mysterious island. The survivors build huts, learn to hunt, and go exploring. But soon they run into a polar bear, and a French hermit, and bit by bit the show’s original question (can these people survive?) is replaced by 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, used flashback sequences to explain motives and actions, and in the third season they began flashing forward too. Eventually characters start traveling through time, which rendered temporal distinctions more or less meaningless. Keep in mind that temporal distinctions are theoretically what serialization is all about.

Despite this derangement, Lost managed to be a show that successfully depended on the plot twist. The show has no visual style, except maybe 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 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 opening it, 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 got goosebumps all over my body. A few seasons later, we learn that this literal and metaphorical illumination was 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.

Lost also dismantles (or at least ignores) the boundaries separating serial television’s well-established genres. A typical episode may begin with an emergency medical procedure, like ER 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, á 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 familiar with the 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. It’s like watching serial television swallow itself whole.

Lost was unusually unrealistic for a serial drama. Even Battlestar Galactica tempered its more fantastic elements (like being set in outer space) with earthbound 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. For Lindelof and Cuse, realism was no longer a necessity, just another available device. This makes it a lot of fun to wonder how seriously Lost wanted to be taken. The show kept hinting at philosophical riches buried deep within the narrative pyrotechnics. Characters walked around with names like Desmond “David” Hume or Danielle Rousseau, and every so often a copy of Ulysses or Fear and Trembling would slide into view. Its finale — a miserable capitulation to the idea that all characters, being equally beloved, must find ultimate fulfillment, even at the cost of inventing an on-screen afterlife for all of them to hug in — is a disaster, but who wants to dwell on the negative? TYou watched Lost, for the most part, with the weird, happy feeling that it was watching you back.

What did it see there? In the 19th century, serial novels worked hard to accommodate themselves to industrial daily life. As the bourgeois workday rigidified into something like a 9-to-5, 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. By 1860, for example, reading had become an almost obligatory element of the daily commute, to the extent that French physicians at a conference 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 pasttime.” 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 imagine a less catastrophic explanation for the interruption of their favorite novel.

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!”

A century on, serial dramas have employed different means toward the same end, tailoring their representational strategies to the habits and experiences of postindustrial viewers. In short, the last three decades’ worth of serial dramas have given us fictional worlds that are increasingly, often exclusively, professional. 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 insists to him, 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 — are attractive, articulate people who always have time to check on one another as they rush from crisis to crisis. Who could possibly disagree with Leo’s decision? Who wouldn’t give up everything to work in that White House?

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 “nonstandard” work schedule, a sociologist’s way of saying that most people now work at night, or at home, in addition to their 9-to-5. 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’ daily lives do not often become popular.

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.” 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, “not because The Wire is good for you but because it is fantastic entertainment.”

More from Issue 10

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Today it’s the bearers of culture rather than the wielders of power who are taxed with elitism

Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The crack-up of the country’s wealthiest, most populous state has been long in the making.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Jonathan Franzen’s novel is a feeling-machine.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The good people of America choose electric cars when given the chance.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

After my two years of war I’ve never been so free, I own nothing now, not even my real name

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

We are always in search of fiction that is willing to meet the world as it is.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

There’s no way around it: Commonwealth is an irritating book.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Reform and revolution may turn out, then, to be allies rather than enemies.

More by this Author

November 11, 2016
November 9
February 29, 2016
So Naïve in Retrospect
Issue 12 Conversion Experience

In the last decade, no organ of music criticism has wielded as much influence as Pitchfork

November 5, 2016
Potentially Endless
September 9, 2010

Hip-hop is a music before it is a sociological lens, an urban newscast, an adolescent fantasy, or anything else.

Issue 26 Dirty Work
Why Are We in the Middle East?