I was happy to wake up this morning and read some responses to Ryan McGee’s AVClub post from yesterday, and wanted to respond to one other aspect of his argument. In his piece, “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good? HBO and the decline of the episode,” McGee suggests that by privileging highly serialized shows and long-arc plotlines, HBO has contributed to a devaluing of episodic form. As a result, he claims, these shows have “shifted the emphasis of a single episode in terms of overall experience,” and “established a benchmark against which other programs simply can’t compare.”
James Poniewozik and Jason Mittell have already taken on parts of that thesis – in particular, Poniewozik rightly notes that it’s odd to attack excellent fiction for raising the bar so high that other things look bad in comparison. (Or, as Damon Lindelof put it on twitter last night, “I wish that awesome shows would stop ruining television.”) Mittell’s response has more to do with the examples McGee chooses: he points out that The Sopranos, McGee’s choice for damagingly-serialized television, is actually strongly episodic, and that far from being the countervailing trend, television shows in which long-arc plots harm rather than help the overall experience of an episode are less a norm than an occasional flop.
What struck me about McGee’s piece, and the reason I am still thinking about this whole thing, is his insistence that episodes on The Sopranos or Game of Thrones should not really be called “episodes,” but rather, “installments.” He makes the distinction clear when going on to note that, “HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels,” and this is really the crux of his issue, because “a television show is not a novel.” He’s right, of course, it’s not a novel. But neither is a season of The Wire or The Sopranos or the most “novelistic” TV show built out of “installments” rather than episodes.
Take, for instance, the most episodic of serial novelists, my friend and yours, Charles Dickens. Perhaps more than any other nineteenth-century author, Dickens’ style comes close to a television series’ pattern of repeated conflict and resolution, isolated character portraits, and orchestrated multi-plot structure. In fact, if you’re looking for the novel’s version of the kind of highly visible, “end of a part” fictional signals that TV often produces, Dickens is where I’d go. Take, for instance, this bit from David Copperfield:
“Thus I began my new life, in a new name, and with everything new about me… Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know. I only know that it was, and ceased to be; and that I have written, and I leave it.”
What a great episode ending, right! Except, this comes smack in the middle of one of the novel’s serial parts. Dickens peppers his works with these episodic moments of closure and re-beginning, but the emphasis is very, very rarely aligned with the break in a serial part. His goal is quite different than what we expect from a television episode – his goal is for these serial parts to disappear after volume publication. One chapter may stand out as strange and different from the rest of the novel, but no one serial part (usually made of three or four chapters) will ever be a complete departure. Likewise, one chapter may be an exploration of a single theme, but it will only ever be a piece of a serial number.
What I’m trying to make clear, here, is that even these uber-serialized, highly interwoven pieces of The Wire are still emphatically episodes. They begin and end, they are bookended by paratextual materials (the opening quote card, the title sequence, the end credits) that insist we read the episode as a whole piece (and these are not erased when we view several episodes in a row). In McGee’s frustration that the episode-as-novel part occludes the need for an episode to have a “goal,” he overlooks the possibility that its “goal” may not be a single episode-length plot. As Mittell puts it, “The Wire’s approach to episodes is less about plot structure, and more about thematic and tonal parallels.” In other words, it’s still an approach to episodes, which will still be received and considered as whole, individual units.
To suggest that HBO’s programs attempt to mimic the novel’s serial parts is to misunderstand the way serial publication worked in the novel, and to reduce the possibilities of episodic structure past the point of reality or utility.
Rumors of the episode’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.