A bit more than a year before he died, Christopher Hitchens wrote a long article for the City Journal lamenting that there has never been a single novel that truly does justice to complexities of his adopted hometown, Washington DC. Hitch would regularly declare that he was able to read so much because his house had no TV, but last fall while Hitch lay on his deathbed, the first book of a new novel was unearthed that might precisely be what he was looking for. Unfortunately, the novel was on TV, so Hitch probably never had a chance to watch.
Literary fiction no longer holds a place in American life’s mainstream. With the death of J.D. Salinger, we lost the last literary author read by ‘everyone,’ and his books were all a half-century in the past. It’s still within living memory that American authors like Hemingway, Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Fitzgerald, Booth Tarkington, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Faulkner were writing complex works for a general, middlebrow public. In 1945, if you had cultural aspirations, you dare not go without reading these authors. You dare not even go without reading the American fiction writers of the previous generation or two either: like Mark Twain, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, O Henry, Jack London, Ring Lardner, Edith Wharton, and Sherwood Anderson. And those who truly loved literature could trust that there would be a whole new generation of authors with entirely different voices who could sustain their interest just as well when the giants stopped writing books – the only problem was that so many writers were inspired to write great fiction that no two readers seemed to agree on which were great. It’s a list that contained every special interests - from Jewish authors like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller, to black authors like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, to southern authors like Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy, to southern women authors like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, to Jewish women authors like Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick, to politically committed women authors like Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, to journalistic authors like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer (no matter how differently they viewed themselves), historical fiction authors like Gore Vidal and William Styron and E.L. Doctorow, regional northeastern authors like John Updike and William Kennedy, and this list does not include the non-fiction, the poetry, the foreign authors. By the late 60’s, no two Americans could agree on who the great authors were, and reading became -in every sense- a truly solitary activity. American literature had balkanized into a cornucopia of niches – something for anyone, very little for everyone. And since no two intellectuals could agree on what authors should be read, the general public retreated to paperback fiction and genre pot boilers. The end result was all too foreseeable, the literary American novel itself has long since become a niche commodity, even the most feted and successful contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace and Phillip Roth are only read by small subsections of America’s intellectually curious public. And in place of the novel grew other things about which everyone could agree what was great.
If our grandparents grew up in the golden age of American fiction (and their parents in the golden age of American poetry), then our parents grew up in the golden age of American movies. In 1975, if you had cultural aspirations, you dare not absent yourself from a movie theater for more than a week at a time: hundreds of movie theaters existed every city of note, and they catered to every special interest. Special movie theaters existed for new movies, classic movies, foreign movies, B-movies, exploitation movies, and pornographic movies. But what amazes is that intellectually curious people were expected to see it all: not just exciting new American directors like Kubrick, Lumet, Peckinpah, Cassavetes, Bogdanovich, Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Altman, but the classic movies of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Howard Hawks and John Ford, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor and Vicente Minnelli, Billy Wilder and Nicholas Ray; self consciously “bad” movies by Roger Corman and Russ Meyer, Ossie Davis and Melvin van Peebles, George Romero and John Carpenter, Larry Cohen and John Waters; and not to forget – foreign stuff by Bergman and Fellini, Antonioni and Bertolucci, Godard and Truffaut, Kurosawa and De Sica, Bunuel and Ophuls, Herzog and Fassbinder. But then came the 80’s, with its multiplexes and VCR’s and pursuits of bottom line profits, and suddenly, movie theaters were no longer exciting places to be. No longer were the movies fundamentally a place where people went to watch other people, the movies became a place where we went to watch machines. Whether it was the special effects extravaganzas of George Lucas, or the spiritually charged machines of Stephen Spielberg, or the artful background tapestries of Ridley Scott, or the superimposed historical backdrops of Robert Zemeckis, or the gigantic new worlds created by James Cameron, or the human, anti human machines of half a dozen horror auteurs, the world of American movies had Balkanized – its Golden Age definitively and clearly over. By 1990, American movies inspired a hollow shell of the passion in Americans which they used to. Where did that passion go? Well, if you’re not reading this article, you’re probably watching television.
And if cinema was the language of our parents, then TV is our language. No longer can TV be condescended to as an inferior artform, there’s simply too much contrary evidence. There was plenty of evidence of TV’s emerging quality in the 80’s and 90’s. But just imagine how different the last twelve years of our lives would be if we’d never seen The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, South Park, Chappelle Show, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, Fringe, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Office, 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, Malcolm in the Middle, Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks, Futurama, Family Guy, Friday Night Lights, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother, Everybody Loves Raymond, Big Love, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords, Entourage, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, True Blood, Oz, Dexter, Weeds, The West Wing, House, Glee, Nip/Tuck, The Shield, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Powerpuff Girls, Spongebob Squarepants, and yes, 24. More than any book or movie, to know what these above titles signify is to understand what it means be an American in our time. You may not have seen all of them, but you have an opinion on most. And in the back of your mind, there lurks a part of you that wants to plunk down on the couch and see every f-cking episode of them all.
And now, as the era of television draws closer and closer to its end, we have a new show that could well be as earth shattering as any of them. In all probability, television already hit its all-time high point, probably around 2005 when The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, South Park, and The Daily Show were all operating at their absolute peak. We’re beginning to see American television balkanize just as American literature and movies did before them. There are more networks than ever before, and all of them want to create their own original programming. But in such an environment, even networks as daring as HBO, Comedy Central, or Fox (and they are extremely daring) can’t necessarily hold their own. Today’s best TV shows have to be ballsy as never before. To distinguish themselves, they have to take on entire worlds of ideas and characters and leave any reservations at the door. Next to the Grand Guignol fest of Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos makes mafia violence look like a tasteful phenomenon. Next to the earth-scorching indictments of local politics made in Boss, The Wire was positively even-handed. Next to Louis CK’s lacerating self-humiliations in his eponymous show, Curb Your Enthusiasm seems like a shrine of self-love. In contrast to the formal perfection of the best from ten years ago, the excess of ambition seen in today’s best new shows makes them seem comparatively sloppy. To equal the daring of these older shows, the ambitions have to be still bigger. And one can feel the showrunners struggling against their limitations: Casting directors are not accustomed to hiring so many many actors as it has to for Game of Thrones, or auditioning actors to sing, dance, and act for the camera as they must for Glee. Network public relations are not accustomed to to explaining the necessity of animal death so that they can make a show like Luck, nor can they find a plausible explanation about why Outsourced, the first fictional American TV show about the contemporary Asian experience, resembles nothing so much as a Minstrel Show.
We’ve reached TV’s Golden Age, and there’s simply nowhere to go from here but down. It’s been a nice ride, but in ten years we’ll all disagree about what TV shows are worth watching – and reality TV’s triumph over quality programming will be complete. Quality on TV will once again be the exception rather than the rule, but with the added tragedy that we’ll remember a time when it was not so. We’ll probably either view video games or internet videos with the seriousness we currently give to television. Neither prospect fills me with much excitement, but then again, we probably haven’t yet seen the most exciting things yet which either can do.