No, The Sopranos Didn’t Ruin Television
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
February 21, 2012 – 03:29
Over the past day, the internet – well, at least the corner of the internet that chatters and Twitters about television – blew up around Ryan McGee’s essay on The A.V. Club, provocatively titled “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode.” It’s a must-read for people who are interested in television’s narrative structure, raising many crucial points and ideas, but coming to precisely the wrong conclusions. Given that I’m knee-deep in writing about television’s narrative structure, I felt compelled to reply.
McGee’s main argument is that The Sopranos and the HBO model of serialized drama has undermined the individual episode as a stand-alone unit that “contributes to the whole, but works on top of that as a singular, stand-alone hour of televised entertainment as well.” Instead he says that a novelistic approach to television emphasizes season and series arcs over individual episodes, treating them as “installments” without its own payoffs and pleasures, rather than episodes. (I’m not sure why he doesn’t extend the novel metaphor to call them “chapters” instead of “installments,” which I think is actually more apt.) As he writes, “An episode functions unto itself as a piece of entertainment, one that has an ebb and flow that can be enjoyed on its own terms. An installment serves the über-story of that season without regard for accomplishing anything substantial during its running time.”
I think his analysis of many specific shows is spot-on, especially in his praise of how Justified and Breaking Bad achieve this balance. I quibble with his nomination of The Sopranos as the cause of this phenomenon – within the main HBO canon, Sopranos is actually the least novelistic show, as individual episodes were (as David Chase has said a number of times) structured more like short stories in a thematic collection rather than chapters in a single novel. I’ve read a great (forthcoming) essay by Sean O’Sullivan that explores this point, highlighting how two of the show’s most acclaimed episodes, “College” and “Pine Barrens,” are highly stand-alone entries, and as a whole, the show is far less serialized than most other acclaimed 21st century dramas.
The Wire is a much better culprit in McGee’s scenario, as its episodes offer almost no self-contained plotlines – it’s nearly impossible for new viewers to watch a random episode of the show out-of-context and make sense of it, aside from season premieres. (I’ve written at length about why the novelistic metaphor fails for The Wire elsewhere, but focusing on different issues.) But does that mean that each episode doesn’t “accomplish anything substantial” or lacks its own internal structure and logic? Hell no. The Wire‘s approach to episodes is less about plot structure, and more about thematic and tonal parallels – episodes early in a season are less unified by any one plotline providing narrative satisfaction, but the pleasures of how they bounce off one another and raise thematic issues about the show’s portrait of urban America. They are undoubtedly installments or chapters in a greater whole, but also highly satisfying and effective hours of television.
But my main gripe with McGee’s argument is that he falls into a common trap for critics trying to chronicle a problematic trend: find a few examples that seem to fit his claims, then extrapolate on why those failures point to a larger problem. Yet there are many other counter-examples that run against that trend by successfully balancing the episodic/serial elements - The Good Wife, Doctor Who, Homeland, and Revenge all come to mind as currently airing shows, with older examples like Lost, Terriers, Battlestar Galactica, Pushing Daisies, and all the Joss Whedon shows.
The shows he picks out as demonstrating this problem all can be explained as suffering from different problems: Flash Forward failed in part because it had too much plotting (which I’d argue was not trying to mimic The Sopranos but Lost, which itself always aimed for that arc/episodic balance), but also because the plot was ludicrous and counter to effective dramatic suspense. Plus it changed showrunners three times in a single-season, and had an awful lead actor in Joseph Fiennes. He mentions The Killing, but I’d say it doesn’t fit the case at all – the show’s dramatic momentum stalls precisely because it tries to create more self-contained dramatic arcs that end up functioning as red herrings. The Walking Dead, which I’ve only watched the first season of, seems not particularly interested in long-arcs – zombies! run away! – but fails to find any investment in the characters’ survival aside from the visceral fear of evisceration. (He leads the essay with Luck, which I haven’t seen yet so I cannot comment.)
The achilles heel of all three of these shows is not the failure to create effective episodes, it’s the failure to create effective characters – we’ll happily spend time watching McNulty put together an Ikea bunkbed, or Walter White cleaning the superlab, not because we care about what is happening, but about who is doing the mundane action. Many great shows offer a central pleasure of hanging out with people who are enjoyable to spend time with, whether it’s the struggling musicians in Treme or wacky judges in The Good Wife. It is true that many of these shows’ opening episodes play better in retrospect rather than in the moment, as the characters need time to grow on us and allow us to discover their complexities and relationships.
Clearly the shows McGee laments didn’t create such people and environments (at least yet), but I don’t think that’s due to an over-reliance on arcing plots over episodic structure, nor are The Sopranos or The Wire to blame. We always need to remember that most new television shows fail, either commercially or creatively (or both) – whether it’s a complex long-arc drama or a light family sitcom, television programs always fall apart more frequently than they succeed. Such failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short. Failure is because of the most insightful and truthful sentence in McGee’s piece: “Creating a layered, lengthy narrative is really fucking hard.” Indeed.