Salman Rushdie defects to television: “It’s taken the place of novels.”
You can view this either as a) a disheartening sell out, or b) as an only slightly exaggerated statement of fact, but Rushdie has declared television the dominant narrative art form of the 21st century.
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Of course, as anyone paying attention to the cultural landscape over the past 20 years knows, the correct response is “b” tinged ever so fragrantly with “a”.
I mean, it was at least 15 years ago that I first realized television was no longer a vast wasteland and that we were in the midst of a new Golden Age of televised drama. I realized it because my erstwhile colleague Tom Jicha said as much as a passing remark.
The TV critic at the Sun-Sentinel, and one of the best in the business, Jicha brought me up short. As a book guy, my motto at the time was: “It’s better to read a bad book than to watch a good TV show.” But Jicha’s remark forced me to rethink my position.
Consider some of the top American television dramas of the 1990s: “Northern Exposure.” “thirty-something.” “ER.” “The X-Files.” “Party of Five.” “My So-Called Life.” “Law & Order.” “NYPD Blue.” “Picket Fences.” “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”
I didn’t watch all of these shows regularly, and some of them I only saw in the company of a girlfriend, but I could not deny that they were dramas of extraordinary narrative sophistication, and one of them — “Homicide” — probed so deeply into the lives of its ensemble cast as to gain something approaching a novelistic texture.
As a child of television — like all Boomers, I’m a member of the first generation that cannot remember life before TV — I’ve always had a weakness for the boob tube, no matter how much I scorned it in my literary snobbery. The first show I know of to demonstrate the narrative possibilities of TV drama was the 1970s detective show “The Rockford Files,” which turned all the cliches of the genre upside-down and inside-out.
The next evolutionary step came in 1981 with “Hill Street Blues,” a character-driven drama about the denizens of a Chicago police station. It’s great innovation was adapting the serial storytelling, until that time confined to soap operas.
By the late 1980s any number of dramas had taken the lessons of “Hill Street” and ran with them, led by the lawyer show (first of very, very many), “L.A. Law.” These developments, in turn, gave rise to the flowering of drama Jicha directed me to in 1995 or thereabouts.
And, of course, a new watershed in television storytelling came in 1999, when HBO aired the first season of “The Sopranos,” which showed, once and for all, that virtually no limit exists to the dramatic possibilities of long-form televsion. The 2000s have more than delivered on that promise, with shows like “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Lost,” “Deadwood,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Shield,” “24,” “Dexter,” “Damages” and “Rome.”
Today even light entertainments like “Bones” or “Castle” or “Supernatural” features sharply delineated characters, information-rich storylines and pacing that would have left the average 1950s viewer breathless and confused.
So it’s no surprise that a writer like Rushdie would be drawn to the form. After all, he’s not only a first-rate international novelist, but he’s also savvy about popular culture — his 2000 book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll novel of all time, and maybe the second-best book of his career,” or so says the L.A. Times.
The appeal of television, Rushdie says, is two-fold: The medium reaches a much wider audience than novels, and the writer (or writer-producer) is often completely in charge, unlike movies, where writers are more like sharecroppers. Think David Chase, Joss Whedon, Amy Shermin-Palladino, David Simon, J.J. Abrams, Alan Ball, Shonda Rhimes…
“It’s like the best of both worlds,” says Rushdie in the Guardian. “You can work in movie style productions, but have proper control.”
Not everyone is without skepticism regarding Rushdie’s change of focus: If I were the agent of a novelist whose greatest success came 30 years ago, I’d endorse the opportunity to bring literary sophistication to a populist medium, too,” sniffs the Telegraph‘s Michael Deacon.
But, as always, Rushdie is refreshingly frank about his motives: His American agents suggested he might thrive in U.S. television, where he could have creative control.
“They said to me that what I should really think about is a TV series, because what has happened in America is that the quality – or the writing quality – of movies has gone down the plughole,” Rushdie says.
The result: “The Next People,” a drama Rushdie is developing for Showtime. The author describes it as “a sort of paranoid science-fiction series, people disappearing and being replaced by other people,”
Good luck with that, Sir Salman. Showtime has a mixed record with sci-fi, giving us hits like “Stargate” and the rebooted “Outer Limits.” But the premium channel also pulled the plug prematurely on a promising end-of-the-world drama, “Odyssey Five,” for no better reason than the fact no one was watching.
I’ll give it a chance. Despite the high quality of television drama these days, there’s only so much TV I can watch. I’ve never seen “Mad Men,” for example, or “Damages.” It remains a pernicious medium that has as much in common with say, crack cocaine as it does with War and Peace.
Watching even the best television drama — yes, even “The Wire!” — I eventually feel my brain start to die as my soul leaches out of my body.
So on balance, I still think it may be better to read a bad book than to watch a good TV show.