If someone were to ask me where the most sophisticated, sustained and psychologically compelling explorations and evocations of the human condition (my definition of high art) are coming from here and now, I would say, wait for it, episodic television. This statement will require a good deal of defence.
Most culturally sophisticated types would place television far below poetry, theatre, novels, music and even movies as expressions of profound artistic endeavour. I think they are wrong. The case for television can be made especially episodic television where characters develop and change — the sort of things that happens in The Wire and did not happen previously to the 1980s.
Movies are now a hundred-year old art form, a mature creative discipline with high water mark productions that many critics would grant as having achieved the status of at least near-high art. With this premise I would heartily agree. Television on the other hand — a younger form that took several decades to tap into its fullest potential — still has a Rodney Dangerfield problem,
Cinema is at least on its way to broad acceptance as a powerful and enduring form of creative expression — good for it, good for us. But the cinematic audio-visual form has limitations. Movies are the equivalent of short stories, they do not lend themselves to the complex, layered, nuanced character exploration that were the hallmark of the nineteenth century novel — there is no time and no space for this in a two-hour production no matter how effectively a film plays on a given theme. Where can such deep, and wide-ranging psychological exploration of character be found in our audio-visual age; it can be found in the best of episodic television.
All art forms should be judged by the best work they engender, television`s best work is of fairly recent vintage. For most of its first thirty years, television shows had no memory. Lucy Ricardo, Jackie Gleason, and Dick van Dyke faced new situations every week, but in life, situations change the people who go through them, Lucy, and Jackie and Dick, funny and endearing as they were, did not evolve psychologically. This stasis problem started to change in the eighties, the writers of the teleplays that are the crucial texts of episodic series began to develop extended story arcs, and reference their past episodes, foreshadow their future episodes and develop characters the way novels did and do.
It is important to emphasize the word text here. A series that runs seven years will require the creation of something on the order of 100 – 150 teleplays -an amount of text greater than that found in even the most expansive novel by Dickens or Dostoevsky. If these teleplays are treated as a cohesive exploration of character responding to a variety of incidents over this extended time-frame there is scope for an extraordinary depth and profundity of treatment that can be found nowhere else in the world of art. Add in the fact that a writer who is also a director has at his disposal additional sensory weapons, visual and auditory and you have a recipe for artistic expression the potency of which is limited only by the degree of creative genius brought to bear.
Give me your list of the best series television ever. And let’s figure out why these shows are high art.