A few months ago I eagerly ordered a few seasons of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, one of my favorite television shows when I was a kid. I remembered sleek sets, cool villains, glamorous action set pieces. My memory was kind. The actual show looked almost comically cheesy and awful forty years later. Those were the days when television was derided as “the vast wasteland”, and though there were some quality offerings – The Defenders. Paladin, I Spy, The Twilight Zone – most of what the networks were offering between the cigarette ads was low-budget dreck. An actor who moved from films to TV was committing career suicide, and even in the mid-eighties, when unknown bartender Bruce Willis scored the lead in Moonlighting, the idea that he could jump to features – and for the impossible, unbelievable payday of five million dollars – was shocking and bizarre.
Well, times have changed.
As the quality of big studio Hollywood movies declines, television has become the venue of choice for the most talented writers, actors and directors in Hollywood. There are a number of reasons for this. Television has always been a writer-dominated business, with directors – especially in comedy – playing a secondary role. The rise of cable further enhanced this hierarchy. When the great Matthew Weiner, whose show Mad Men starts its eagerly awaited fourth season on Sunday night, said in the Emmy- award acceptance speech. “The difference between me and the rest of you is that I have complete creative freedom” it was like a battle cry. The quality of work that such unfettered inspiration produced over the last decade – from The Sopranos, Six feet Under and The Wire to Weeds, Dexter and Treme – has made most of the films produced in this era look puny and venal by comparison.
The idea of letting creative people do their work unmolested had gradually seeped into Network television, also, from The West Wing to Friday Night Lights, both of which are as good as anything on cable, and in some ways better since the demands of a network show are so much greater. Treme’s first season consisted of ten episodes, written by a brilliant team. A The West Wing season demanded more than twice as much work -- twenty-two episodes, most of them written by one crazy, drug-fueled genius, though Aaron Sorkin did have a staff of writers and a group of political experts to suggest story lines and make sure the details were accurate.
Now film actors are happy to do television. Glen Close had flourished on Damages and David Caruso was lucky to get back onto CSI Miami after a string of forgettable films.
This shouldn’t be anything new: the real explanation for television’s new ascendancy has been an intrinsic part of the medium, all along. The first hint of television’s narrative superiority over the movies came with the adaptations of two Irwin Shaw novels. An unjustly neglected writer these days, Shaw was a wildly famous and profligate best-selling author from the forties until his death in 1984. His big World War Two novel, The Young Lions, was made into a pretty good film with Marlon Brando playing a disaffected Nazi and Montgomery Clift as a Jewish soldier. Like most films made from books, it was inevitably a disappointment to both the writer and his fans: so much left out, altered, elided – so much lost in translation.
In the seventies ABC did a mini-series based on another Shaw novel, Rich Man, Poor Man. It was a huge hit an inspired other ‘long form’ productions – like Roots and The Winds of War.
Clearly, this was the way to honor a novel and do justice to the complexities of its character and story-lines. In the eighties Television started exploring this concept more and more, though without the burden of adaptation. Shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A.Law and E.R. seemed to be using the techniques of soap opera in their continuing story lines, but the hystrionics and clichés that characterized ‘daytime drama’ were wholly absent from these more sophisticated shows. They worked like literature, showing characters and situations developing over time, with multi-layered subplots, let-motifs and ambiguous resolutions to problems TV had rarely bothered with before – the aftermath of a police shooting, for instance, or the conflict of conscience for an abortion provider.
The great series we’re watching now, like Mad Men, are the logical continuation of this process. Though a contract dispute or a cocaine conviction can throw a series into confusion and mediocrity, though at the networks, ratings and censors and advertisers can skew the content of a show, for the most part these programs survive; and some of them triumph. We are living through a golden age of television right now – a mass medium that triumphed precisely because it chose to narrow the appeal of its shows, even as movie studios seek to reach the largest possible audience with the most possible explosions and the broadest narrative gestures. Television – whose early hedgemony was shattered by cable and the internet – has learned to embrace the niche audience. A million people watch Mad Men each week. That’s a slim movie audience and a catastrophically tiny network one. But it’s enough for Weiner. He’s not playing to -- or writing for -- the crowd, he’s not trying to hit every demographic, and every ‘quadrant’ of some hypothetical test audience.
He just wants the smart people.
And he gets them, like the rest of this new elite: Sorkin and the three Davids: Simon(The Wire, Treme) Chase (The Sopranos), and Milch (Deadwood). These are the new auteurs, and their work is the stuff that will hold up forty years from now, when the comic book adaptations, sequels and star vehicles special effects extravaganzas are long forgotten. It’s a tough truth to absorb, especially if you’re in the 100 million dollar movie business, but as Don Draper memorably pointed out to Peggy Olson in the first episode of Mad Men’s second season,
"Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You- FEELING something. That's what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can't do what we do, and they hate us for it."
But we love you, Don, and we await the next season of Mad Men just as we anticipate the new Jonathan Franzen novel or the American readers lined up on the dock for the next installment of Little Dorritt. The novel isn’t dead – it’s alive and dangerously robust, and television of all things, that ‘great wasteland’ that gave us Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, proves that extraordinary fact beyond the shadow of a doubt.
It’s an irony Dickens himself would have appreciated.