What TV Is For

Ryan McGee criticizes the recent trend toward the “novelization” of television he claims was begun by HBO, says:

HBO isn’t in the business of producing episodes in the traditional manner. Rather, it airs equal slices of an overall story over a fixed series of weeks…HBO isn’t in the business of producing episodes in the traditional manner. Rather, it airs equal slices of an overall story over a fixed series of weeks.

He argues that television’s structure demands that it be about episodes, not long-form story-telling.

James Poniewozik argues against him. But in doing so, he actually says something similar:

It’s true that a TV series is not a novel. But it’s also not a movie. Every medium works best when it takes advantage of what’s distinctive about it.

Both are falling under the spell of what philosopher Noel Carroll called the “specificity thesis.” It’s an idea dating to Kant, and it basically states that each art form should restrict itself the particular properties of its medium do better than any other art form.

But why? The specificity thesis seems absurd and limiting. Don’t we want more great artworks? Who cares if it happens in one art form when it could have arguably been done better in a different art form? Because movies are better at showing snow falling outside a window, do we really want to stop plays from using lighting effects to show snow falling outside of windows? And isn’t there something lovely and clever in the way theater lighting designers come up with ways of showing snow falling outside windows?

Television can be talky. And can be silent and primarily visual. It can be episodic. It can tell a story novelistically over some length of time. Why should any show restrict itself because it is perceived that some other art form can also do any of those things? Surely there have been excellent talky shows, excellent visual shows, excellent episodic shows, and excellent novelistic shows. Should we cut any of those out because we have some preconceived notion of what TV should be? I certainly hope not.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan, although the post seems to be removed now)

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. McGee’s comments would be on target if… well… most television wasn’t still episodic. He’s looking at a particular genre that constitutes a niche and saying that is the death of everything else. I don’t think it is. If I were to go show-by-show, I would say that while most dramatic television shows have ongoing threads (the police captain has cancer, Julie is tumultuously dating Johnny), they nonetheless have episodes with individual conclusions (the judge makes his ruling, the criminal is arrested, whatever). This is different from simply slicing the story in parts.

    • There is the phenomenon (let’s call it the “Friends” phenomenon, whynot?) where there is an overarching storyline for any given season (“Chandler and Monica”) but the nth episode from that season was, like, awesome. Big laughs, a popular guest star, and the most surprising kiss, like, *EVER*. It plays well all by itself.

      So, in syndication, this episode gets played every three months. The episode from before it in the season? Half the ratings. The episode from after it in the season? two-thirds the ratings.

      Why wouldn’t you play this episode more than the other episodes?

      The stuff that HBO is doing, atheist god bless them, couldn’t work that way.

      • Yes, but they get more in DVD sales. Law & Order stopped bothering to even release DVDs. But it’s got syndication everywhere. That’s the tradeoff.

        Anyhow, even with Friends, each episode does have its own story.

      • I’ve seen about 12 episodes of Friends and had no problem figuring out who was feeling what about whom and why. On the other hand, I just told my parents that they MUST sit through the relatively sucky second season of Friday Night Lights, because otherwise they couldn’t go on to watch the amazing rest of it.

        I just want a world where both kinds of shows are okay!

        • *snort* someone wrote an episode of that show…w ithout know ing the names of the characters. episodic show about nothing… easy to write for, neh?

          • … and as usual, my brain fails me. that was seinfeld. *bows head* never watched either of the shows.

  2. I like a tight story, it creates tension and the possibility of progress.
    Heroes did it well (first season), complete with different arcs in the middle.

    I don’t mind syndication/episodic… except that I do. I get more enjoyment out of a long-term plot than out of a 30 minute one.

    Ahh! Star Trek TNG was still good though, when it did episodic. Maybe that was because it was trying harder? For something Larger?
    The trouble with Tribbles is still a fab episode… and wouldn’t have been any better longer.

    Ah! Here’s the thing — it’s actually easier to write longer stories. The short story genre is REALLY hard. When TV episodes are actual short stories — they can be excellent. To Serve Man is another great example! But way way too often you get hack writers…

    Plfuffl! Colbert’s show, Stewart’s show — I don’t think they fit either. What do you call them?

  3. Perhaps if a novelized series / show seems to work, then maybe the medium’s special traits just haven’t been discovered yet. Maybe it’s something like “people used to think that TV series were best done episodically, but now this new series shows that in some cases a story can carry over several episodes and even several seasons. Still, the successful novelizations demonstrate that on TV, the novelization works best when it has the following traits…..”

    In other words, is it possible that the specificity thesis is a good one, but that we just have to admit we don’t fully know the best way in which a medium operates?

  4. IIRC, the arced season-long storyline thing really came of age with Babylon 5 in the early 90’s. Now, that’s just another way to do a TV series — and, I think, a perfectly valid one.

  5. It’s always seemed like the form should fit the story. Mad Men is story that needs to be told more as a novel while CSI is really suited to being mostly episodic. TNG, referenced by Kimmi above, really suffered from avoiding story arcs leading to a giant reset button being pressed after almost every episode. I tend to think being totally episode focus is usually a poor choice for most shows however that doesn’t mean every show should be all long story arc all the time. The highly episodic focus of most shows for years was mostly about having the shows work in syndication not on telling the best story the best way possible.

    • Watch Kiddy Grade. Or Full Metal Panic (first season).
      Episodic shows play a big role — release of tension, followed up by a stronger punch…

      But both of those have an actual story line…

      • Kimmi brings up an interesting point: this is what TV in the US does.

        Television in Japan does something else entirely. (I’ll leave commenting on that to her.)

        A season in the UK, until recent Doctor Who, anyway (someone must have discovered that “money” could be used to trade for “goods” and/or “services”) meant *SIX* episodes. Six!

  6. The epiphenomenon that the linked posts seem to forget is that for a long time, what HBO did was ominpresent on the broadcast networks – they were called ‘miniseries’. (and were key Emmy bait) Economics and that HBO simply does them better is why you don’t see them anymore.

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