Can Television Be High Art?
My youth was the era of “My Mother the Car,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island,” and the idea that television could be serious art seemed laughable. Sure, there had been a “Golden Age” of television in the 1950s, with shows like “Kraft Theater,” “The Honeymooners” and “Your Show of Shows,” but those days seemed long past.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s intellectuals bemoaned the rise of “mass culture.” There were said to be mass-produced, entertainment commodities like TV and movies, which cultural critic Dwight MacDonald claimed relied on “vulgarity, kitsch, homogeneity and standardization to distract and narcotize an alienated industrial society.”
Yet here we are today in a second Golden Age when it’s possible to argue that the once-derided medium of television has emerged as the most vibrant and exciting art form of the 21st Century. What would challenge its dominance? Film has become obsessed with blockbusters, the novel with small, self-absorbed stories, and the theatre with pyrotechnics. Opera, ballet and classical music are stuck in the 19th century, and most people couldn’t name a living poet even if you promised them a winning Power Ball ticket.
Given Dwight MacDonald’s aversion to capitalism, it’s ironic that free-market competition created the conditions for great television programming. When there were only three major broadcast networks, each sought the biggest possible audience through the lowest common denominator. But the rise of cable has created a wide-open field for all kinds of programming. Some networks went for trash and others courted discriminating viewers.
In Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution Will be Televised,” AMC President Charlie Collier explains that creating a high-end, must-see show was critical to the long-term health of the network. AMC knew that without distinctive programming it could not attract high carriage fees or be sure that cable companies would carry it at all. This straightforward business calculation led directly to the creation of one of the greatest TV shows ever: “Mad Men.”
But even while acknowledging that television has dramatically improved (in some areas), some critics don’t want to consider it “high art.” In many respects, this is a silly argument to engage in. Who cares if television is “high art,” “middlebrow,” “mass art” or one of the “plastic arts," as long as it provides aesthetic pleasure and self-insight to a discerning audience? Yet critics' hesitation to label TV as aesthetically serious raises some questions about how we analyze TV drama.
The first argument against TV as high art is the open-ended nature of a TV series. A producer can’t develop a full narrative arc to match the length of a newly launched show without knowing if it will last one or 10 years. A work of art needs a beginning, middle and end, but if there’s no way to know when the end is, you are basically making it up as you go along.
Some shows handle this better than others, creating a season’s worth of episodes that can stand on their own as a coherent whole even if the show is canceled at the end of the season. But most can’t plan more than a few episodes ahead, which sometimes leads to a huge whiff when the time comes to end the series (I’m talking to you, “Lost”). This can cast a pall over the entire body of work. (Although it’s probably fair to point out that the greatest American novel -- “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” -- has one of the worst endings in literature, because Mark Twain hadn’t fleshed out his ideas when he started the book.)
Television is also said to fail as high art because it has no “author.” How do you evaluate an artist’s vision when you don’t know who the artist is? A novel has an author, an opera has a composer, a movie has a director, but a television series has a showrunner, whose job is to wrangle cats and run interference from the network. A showrunner will write a couple of episodes, direct a couple of episodes, but given how much work is involved in producing a show every week, he or she can’t control every aspect of the production.
It’s no coincidence that the greatest shows have the best showrunners. Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), David Chase (“The Sopranos”) and Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) may not have written every line of dialogue on their shows, but they imposed their vision and are as much the authors of these works of art as any New Wave director is of his films.
In the end, we have to evaluate a work of art by what’s on the screen, not by the creative process. Would anyone claim that Gothic cathedrals aren’t works of art even though we don’t know who “authored” their creation? By any definition, television has vaulted into the realm of serious art. The best shows of the past decade have wrestled with serious and difficult questions in a compelling way. They’ve been complicated, psychologically insightful, life-affirming inquiries into the human condition. To me, that seems like high art.