TV Shows Are The New Literary Short Story
Snapshots of characters’ lives reveal imperfect people struggling with sex, love and happiness.
A few episodes of Joe Swanberg’s Netflix series “Easy” were enough to cement my theory that a growing pool of auteurs are making what amounts to visual literature — on TV.
I’m not the first to take this view. The Atlantic’s Michael Agresta wrote about TV-as-literature back in 2012, praising shows like “The Wire” and “Mad Men” for their ability to hold up “a mirror to society,” to portray characters’ lives “with depth and integrity” and to forge “new expressive styles that reflect the consciousness and felt reality of the time.”
But what Agresta admired in the literary style of these new shows was overshadowed by the fact that TV is — by nature — a first draft. What I mean is that a show doesn’t have the finale to its 8th season mapped out when its pilot airs. Producers have to modify the story (sometimes significantly) when contractual issues arise with writers or actors.
A TV show, in other words, is typically beholden to the Hollywood machine.
But things are changing fast: potent new instruments are now available to the television scene. Netflix’s enthusiastic adoption of original material, for example, has given storytellers an international outlet — often with complete creative control — to produce something that doesn’t have to fit neatly into the framework of a traditional network show.
Then there’s HBO, whose willingness to take a chance producing things like web series is popularizing niche voices that have been, until now, relegated to obscure corners of the internet.
Clearly, TV producers are changing their way of thinking. And with the style of production changing, so is the storytelling. In “Easy,” for example, each episode stands as its own vignette. That means that Swanberg, its creator, is free to tell eight separate stories without having to worry about diverted plot lines or studio-imposed cliffhangers. Each episode has something to say, and those statements each contribute, in turn, to the series’s overarching thesis. (Swanberg himself goes back and forth on what this thesis is, at some points saying it doesn’t exist and at others proclaiming it as a “portrait of Chicago.”)
“Easy” is an anthology of literary short stories put to film. Not literally, of course — Swanberg never wrote the stories as prose. But the show’s eight episodes feel more like an Andre Dubus collection than a conventional TV show: Imperfect people struggle with sex, love and happiness against the backdrop of a quintessentially American setting. In Dubus’s case, it’s New England; in Swanberg’s, it’s Chicago.
Then there’s “High Maintenance,” which began to air on HBO in September. The show is, like “Easy,” a study of person and place, replete with hyperreal dialogue and impressive depth of character. The difference is that the show’s creators, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, sew their vignettes together with a common thread in the form of “The Guy,” a weed dealer who bicycles from client to client (and story to story). The Guy acts much like Olive Kitteridge did in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” a collection of stories bound by a single character whose influence on each chapter forms a cohesive whole. (HBO produced an Olive Kitteridge TV series, too.)
IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller summed it up when she wrote, “Every episode [of ‘High Maintenance’] is essentially a life in miniature.” Because isn’t that what a short story is, when you get down to it? A short but revealing microcapsule of life?
If we expand our definition of “short story” a little, we can also include Aziz Ansari’s brilliant show, “Master of None,” in this theory. The 10-part series follows Dev, a young comedian living in New York, as he navigates the perils of career, romance, family and existential angst.
Some might argue that the way the series follows a single character makes it more like a visual novel than a series of short stories. I disagree. Each episode tackles a theme — the first episode, for example, examines the ambivalence many young couples feel towards having kids. Other episodes deal with thorny issues like feminism, ethnicity and the difficulties of living with your significant other.
Using the same characters, Aziz tackles 10 different issues, saying 10 different things. Compare the plot of “Master of None” to the plot of shows like “The Wire” or “Mad Men” and you’ll see the difference — Aziz uses plot as a vehicle for substance, while in those other shows, the plot is the substance.
There’s nothing wrong with literary prose or even long-form TV for that matter: “Game of Thrones” is both a literary and TV classic. But there’s a measure of value in the short story’s punchy remark on life and humanity that usually can’t be matched by a novel. To keep achieving that gratifying combination of brevity and brilliance, I hope networks continue giving writers like Swanberg, Blichfeld, Sinclair and Ansari the reins.