We Watch Channel Zero

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Television, 1962-83. © the artist, courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art London and Simon Lee Gallery, London.

Adjusting the Picture

Some of the best TV shows these days, whether we’re watching them on television sets or online, are being compared to novels—and even sonnets. A chat with some of the leading thinkers in TV writing to find out what comes next.

I have a confession to make: I stopped watching Mad Men half way through the first season. It’s not that I thought it was no good, it’s just that it didn’t fit into my schedule. And by schedule, I mean all the other TV my wife, Emily, and I have been watching.

We could be working our way through the Criterion film catalog but that would be like reading Finnegan’s Wake for pleasure, which is to say: good films are too much work. As it is, we can flip open a laptop, watch an hour of TV, feel like we’ve accomplished something, and go to bed.

Perhaps this is something I should be ashamed of (who said that the secret to accomplishing great things was not watching TV?), but honestly, TV is pretty much our speed. And the shows we watch are actually fantastic. We might be living in the infancy of the internet, but we’re living in the Golden Age of Television. My only worry is that, as all things must, this age will tarnish and fade.


Phoef Sutton—who got his start in TV writing for Cheers, rose to be executive producer of that show, and has since written movies, produced other TV shows, and published a novel—suggests the recent boom in great television comes in response to declining quality at the movies.

“Movies have stopped doing thought-provoking adult fare,” he told me. “They only do super hero movies, so TV has taken it up. The qualities that Mad Men has, 20 years or 10 years ago, would have been in the movies. Breaking Bad would have been a movie. And they don't make movies like that anymore. TV has kind of picked up the banner for that. It's a really good time.”

The qualities that Mad Men has, 20 years or 10 years ago, would have been in the movies. Breaking Bad would have been a movie.

Those shows: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and others: Lost, The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones—they carry the banner for our new age. They vary from drama to genre, though rarely stray into comedy, and they share production values dubbed “cinematic” and story lines called “novelistic.” Most notably, the vast majority are serials or installment fiction.

Ohio State Prof. Sean O’Sullivan puts the beginning of this gilded age in 1999, with the debut of The Sopranos, an event, he writes, “that generated a well-documented cultural tsunami.”

“There was something,” he told me, “about the way that show and other shows we started watching afterwards were playing around with the combination of the cinematic medium … and the narrative by installment … something about the way they were using the conventions of seriality and finding their own way through it—a resistance to the limits of seriality, but also embracing it—a schizophrenia about what installment fiction can do but also the potential limitation of—how far TV could aspire.”

Never mind the writing, never mind the cinematography— O’Sullivan points to one particular aspect of The Sopranos that was a first for television: the short-run serial season. The first season of the show ran for 13 consecutive weeks, each episode an installment in a larger story. And this has become the form that all but defines the critical shows of the past 15 years.

Not all of today’s most popular serial shows use 13 episodes. Some use 12, others 14. Game of Thrones leaves us hanging at 10. But in general, the Dramas Worth Watching all follow this model. O’Sullivan points to this as a new thing: the season as a narrative structure. His contention is that a 22- or 26-episode season, the kind we all got used to with Cheers or Friends, may have meant something from a production standpoint, but as a unit of narrative, the long, ponderous, break-filled seasons don’t really work. You can’t carry a story through something like that, and besides, you wouldn’t really want to.

“I mean,” Sutton told me, “Cheers was probably the first series on television to do the ‘serialized story’—we had a story throughout the season—you know, ‘Would Sam and Diane get together?’ [which] was actually new at that time, believe it or not. They hadn't done that at that time with the main characters of a series wondering what would happen. But we only did maybe four episodes out of a season that dealt with that topic of the season. The rest of the time, they were just standalone episodes. And if you missed those, that didn't really matter.”

The reason for this was simple: Even shows like Cheers and Friends, shows that dominated the ratings and boasted regular audiences in the tens of millions, weren’t getting the same viewers every week. Sutton recalls a viewer poll showing that, if the show runners were lucky, their most loyal audience might see 10 episodes out of a 26-episode season. “It didn't really work for the shows to be interconnected very much,” said Sutton.

This is the beauty, too, of procedurals like NCIS and Law and Order. Something bad happens in the beginning of an episode and it’s resolved by the end, regardless of whether you’re watching season 12 or season 20. The model, Sutton told me, is built for the good old days of reruns, when your only choice was to turn on the TV and watch whatever the networks were broadcasting.

Amanda Lotz, in her book The Television Will Be Revolutionized, writes that, golden or not, we’re living in the Post-Network Era, a comment not on the content or quality of television today, but on the modes of its distribution and consumption.

The Network Era, which she says lasted from 1952 to the mid-1980s, was characterized by “viewers [who] had comparatively few ways to use their televisions … most selected among fewer than a handful of options. … As the name implies, in the network era, U.S. ‘television’ meant the networks ABC, CBS, and NBC.” Since most families had only one set, and most watched together, “network programmers … consequently selected programs and designed a schedule likely to be acceptable to, although perhaps not favored by, the widest range of viewers.”

Even shows like Cheers and Friends, shows that dominated the ratings and boasted regular audiences in the tens of millions, weren’t getting the same viewers every week.

In the ’80s, writes Lotz, the Network Era gave way to the Multi-Channel Era, to cable and channel surfing. You could watch whatever you wanted to, as long as it was on one of the many more channels now available. And then, starting in the early aughts, we moved into the Post-Network Era. This “is not meant to suggest the end or irrelevance of networks,” she writes, “just the erosion of their control over how and when viewers watch particular programs.”

It’s not just that we can watch TV on our computers or our phones, it’s that we get to choose what we watch, when we watch it, and how long we watch it. This is how Emily and I ended up watching season one of Game of Thrones in a single week, three years after it aired.

My television consumption wasn’t always like this. I was the only kid in my middle school who didn’t get the South Park jokes, because my parents had decided our household would be TV-free. It was all so stupid, they said, and the commercials. The first time I saw a commercial, while visiting grandparents, probably, I got mad at my brother for changing the channel.

But since I’ve moved out of the house, things have changed. From college, when I watched the Daily Show the way working stiffs watch the evening news, to today, where Emily and I follow at least four or five shows regularly, I keep a couple of trashy cop shows on the side, and select others get watched occasionally. We still don’t own a TV, but the internet is a truly marvelous thing.


It may be coincidental, but probably is not, that the birth of O’Sullivan’s new short season coincided with the availability of DVD box sets, which made it possible, suddenly, to present a whole television season as a single entity, much the way that Charles Dickens’s serials were collected and published in bound volumes after their completion.

The comparison is not accidental. These shows we’re talking about are often called novelistic, much in the same way that their visual style brings the cinema to mind. In some cases, this is very much a fact. Game of Thrones started out as a novel (a novel, it should be pointed out, written by an author fed up with the limitations of writing for TV). So did True Blood. But mainly, “novel” seems to be used to describe sweep and tone. If police or hospital procedurals act as short stories, the theory might go, then the 13-episode drama should be a novel. The use of the term also, I think, instills a qualitative sentiment, as if these shows must be something better than “just TV” if we’re all going to spend our nights watching them.

“Novel” seems to be used to describe sweep and tone. If police or hospital procedurals act as short stories, the theory might go, then the 13-episode drama should be a novel.

O’Sullivan, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the 19th-century British novel (with a heavy emphasis on the period’s installment fiction), has written on the literary qualities of these new shows, in one instance directly comparing the second season of Deadwood to Dickens’s writing, but he’s leery of blanket statements. “Part of the problem,” he told me, “is that the word ‘novel’ itself is famously vague anyway. What is the novel in literature anyway? It's a very hard thing to define as other than ‘a piece of fiction that is longer than a short story.’”

David Simon, most notably, refers to The Wire, which he created, as “a sort of visual novel.” His choice of words seems to refer to the show’s emphasis on systems—the gangs, the police, the schools, the news—and it is perhaps not an accident that we find episode six of season five titled “The Dickensian Aspect.” Much can, and has been, made of this but it seems to have more to do with Simon’s extra-show interviews than anything else. Nobody talks about Breaking Bad as “Dickensian.”

The fact that we’re talking about David Simon at all indicates something else: This is also the era of the Show Runner, a very 21st-century construction. Television shows have had executive producers since, presumably, forever, but they have never before existed as such public faces of their shows. Now we have David Simon, Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball, J.J. Abrams, and David Chase acting almost like directors, almost like authors. Ignoring the incredible machine it takes to produce an episode of television, giving shows an authorial name presents them as somehow literary and also creates expectations of quality. I was certainly more inclined to watch Treme knowing it was Simon’s show—especially because Emily’s never liked cop shows so watching The Wire had been a solo project. As much as I had enjoyed the story of Baltimore, I looked forward to Simon’s portrayal of New Orleans, a city I know almost nothing about.

Dickens, as a sort of First Ancestor to modern serial fiction, makes for useful comparisons. First: His success created a form that others were able to emulate, while at the same time establishing a demand for that kind of fiction. And what worked for Dickens works for television, too. By presenting work serially, you build an audience and generate critical mass. People can look forward to the next episode, develop relationships with your characters, and inevitably get mad when you kill them off.

This works, of course, beyond television. There were radio serials before television existed, and comics have been serialized for decades. We like serials. In a way, it’s surprising that television took so long to give us what we want.


Before the scale of my argument becomes too grandiose, my metaphors too cinematic, let’s be clear: These shows we’re talking about aren’t really making a lot of money.

“For the critical acclaim, for the awards and all that, they like the serialized kind of thing,” Sutton said. “But that's actually one of the reasons that HBO and Showtime get all the awards. Awards mean more to them, because they don't really care about getting a lot of viewers. If it wins an award, then people will pay the subscription and watch it. Whereas a show like NCIS doesn't really give a fuck whether they get an award or not, they have tons of viewers. It's a question of whether you want a racecar or a car that runs.”

Technology has made serial watching easier, and the innovation of serial season has presented a new form, but none of that would matter if these racecar shows were not also remarkably good.

This is something to remember. I’ve been writing about major shifts in television with a capital T, and this needs to be amended. There has been a sea change in a very small, if culturally relevant, span of the television spectrum. We’re talking about a few shows out of hundreds. We’re talking about the racecars, not the Camrys.

Technology has made serial watching—and with it, binge watching—easier, and the innovation of serial season has presented a new form, but none of that would matter if these racecar shows were not also remarkably good. They have great (if tortured) characters, fantastic production values, and, unlike the blockbusters that Sutton dismisses as adolescent fare, story lines that allow for a certain intricacy of narrative. Cinema doesn’t often allow you to tell a story over 10 or 12 hours, nor to take those characters and do it again for the next five or six or seven years.

Because television is produced over time, we live with the characters and we see them age. This is true, to some degree, of movie series (such as Harry Potter) or the recent addition to Richard Linklater’s series with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but in general, films exist as a one-off event, whereas the shows we watch have a way of insinuating themselves into our lives.

This quality of “living with” characters and shows and worlds makes for a very different kind of contract between producers and viewers, one that helps to explain the inevitable outrage whenever a series ends. Films end well all the time, but, says Sutton, “The fact of the matter is that people almost always react with disappointment at the end of these shows. At the end of The Sopranos people were livid. And I'm sure at the end of Mad Men they'll be crying out. I honestly can't remember a serialized show that had an end that people said, ‘Wow, that was great’.”

This anticipation of an unhappy ending is the reason, I think, that it took me a full year to watch the last few episodes of The Wire. By the middle of season five I had confirmed that my decision not to pursue a career in newspapers was a good one, but I was truly upset by what seemed like the inevitability of everything in McNulty’s life going to shit. He had never been particularly likeable, but seeing him happy had been one of the emotional high points of the previous season. I’m glad I finished, eventually—and actually, I was pretty happy with the ending. It was one without unicorns or rainbows, but it seemed pretty honest, a glimmer of hope and confirmation that not every single character in the series was destined for despair.


O’Sullivan offered that in academic circles, a school of thought suggests that our Facebook updates and Twitter streams can be read as examples of serial narrative—that we are constructing our own stories 144 characters at a time. From my privileged position outside the academy, this seems like a silly discussion. We’ve always constructed the narratives of our lives, always told stories to our friends and our children and to strangers on the street. Why should technology make this any different?

But the forms of these stories, those are interesting. And it’s clear that the transition from network to post-network, from wired to wireless, has had real and significant changes not only on our media consumption habits but also on the form those media take. So if this Golden Age was brought on by a cable company looking to stand out among the many and by the new ability to put a season in a box, what then will the future bring?

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested as early as 1967 that “the next medium, whatever it is—it may be an extension of our consciousness—will include television as its content.” So, that’s settled, TV will stay TV, even if it’s online.

News out in mid-July pretty much confirmed this. According to The Wall Street Journal, Google is in talks with media companies about getting into the TV game. “The latest efforts,” write Christopher S. Stewart and Shalini Ramachandran, “are aimed at offering conventional channels, allowing consumers to flip through channels just as they would on cable, as well as on-demand programming.” This might be disruptive to the traditional cable market, but in terms of broadcast, it’s almost a return to the old Multi-Channel days.

To be honest, I’m interested more in form than function. O’Sullivan’s 13-episode season might have been new, but it fit an institutional logic. Before the short season, shows were already ordered in 13-episode blocks to start with, and then, if it made the numbers, someone holding the money would order the “back nine.” (“It used to be,” mused Sutton, “that a 13-episode season meant that you had failed.”) Plus: There is a certain calendric logic to a season that is literally as long as a season.

But, as we venture deeper into the post-network world, will that hold? If shows are produced ahead of time and then launched en masse, like Arrested Development or House of Cards, will they keep to this new form, and should they?

Sonnets had their day. Wranglers of words and meter can still work in the form, but more often, they don’t. These days, novels are king.

It’s hard to know. Based on the shows coming out in the last few years, a short series is still language for “Hey, this is going to be good, you should watch it.” And even if the season becomes a thing of the past, the series has been around long enough to last as a form. In an essay for Storyworlds called “Broken on Purpose”, O’Sullivan argued with great erudition that the 13-episode series should be considered more a sonnet than a novel, his argument ranging (in broad strokes), around meter and a question of narrative spin.

This may or may not be, and even if it is, it may not matter. But it does lend itself to a certain conclusion: Sonnets had their day. Wranglers of words and meter can still work in the form, but more often, they don’t. These days, novels are king.

By that logic, the 13-episode series will inevitably give way to some new form, more suited to distribution and consumption. Perhaps the European mini-series, with three or five installments, will become common. Or super-short installments, something for us to watch as we eat at our desks. But there’s another way to look at the sonnet vs. novel question. Remember, the novel started out as low art, a pastime for the masses. It has ascended only in the last 150 years to its place atop the creative pyramid. Perhaps this is what we’re seeing now, a televisual ascendency to high art.

If proof is in the pudding, you’ll find it in my parents’ living room, shiny and new, and now mostly tuned in (digitally speaking) to White Collar, or Monk, or Life, or, oddly, Gossip Girl. “Have you watched these?” my father asked the other day. “The writing is just spot-on.”

Martin Connelly is a writer, photographer, and co-founder of the Little Red Cup Tea Company. He lives in Portland, Maine. More by Martin Connelly