Here’s Adam Kirsch:
One criticism that could be leveled against quality cable TV is that it is not nearly as formally adventurous as Dickens himself.
Television was so bad for so long, it’s no surprise that the arrival of good television has caused the culture to lose its head a bit. Since the debut of “The Sopranos” in 1999, we have been living, so we are regularly informed, in a “golden age” of television. And over the last few years, it’s become common to hear variations on the idea that quality cable TV shows are the new novels. Thomas Doherty, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called the new genre “Arc TV” — because its stories follow long, complex arcs of development — and insisted that “at its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.”
Some years ago, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht declared that his plays would begin to “narrate,” to tell stories rather enact scenes. And now television seems to have made a similar assertion.
If there is one thing that the novel does supremely well, it is to enable us to read the minds of its characters. The writers of fiction can take us seamlessly from scenic description to the trappings of the mind, letting us get inside the heads of characters and explore a mental apparatus that is nuanced, contradictory, and complex. For that reason, the novel seems in no great danger of losing its hold on our imaginations. House of Cards moves into a novelistic mode every time Frank Underwood turns to the camera and reveals his thoughts to us in a manner that is uncannily Brechtian. But still he wears a mask in ways that characters in a Dickens’ novel rarely do.
House of Cards, like Downton Abbey and other serial television adventures, draws much of its power from the collision of deeply personal family matters with political intrigue on the world stage. It offers visual pleasures (faces, costumes, landscapes) that the novel, with its black squiggles on white pages, cannot possibly recreate. Even the sorcery of a Nabokov falls short on that score. But who else can take us inside the mind of a predator and turn him our soulmate, our brother, our friend?
I readily admit to my new addiction to tv shows–guilty as charged–but last week, it was Richard Wright’s Black Boy that had me hooked in ways that television never has. And one of the great pleasures of binge reading is that you never ever feel a trace of guilt.