The Sopranos vs. Lost: Debating the Highs and Lows of the Serial Narrative Arts
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
I begin my remarks today by quoting the words of that obscure TV hack writer, Emily Dickinson, and I do so for two reasons. First, because serial narrative, at its best, traffics in possibility more fully and creatively than any other medium; this form of publication continually makes us wait between parts, to imagine the possible, to speculate about what these numerous windows and superior doors might be, to poke around this edifice of negative capability. My second reason for citing the Belle of Amherst has to do with her pugnacious preference for possibility, temptingly translatable as “poetry,” over prose. Given our presumption—not entirely inaccurate—that serial television is a grandchild of the serial novel, the inclination has been to align, say, Deadwood with Dickens; indeed, I have made that move myself in print. But there are two problems with that alignment. First, it seems to me problematic to treat even serial prose fiction as prose—that is, to treat it in the way we would treat non-serialized fiction; the rhythms, shapes and structures of the serial novel are not the same as those of the stand-alone book. Even more importantly, the particular way in which the best of serial television operates requires a poetic model of scrutiny, connected most basically to the fact that pictures and sounds—the essential components of cinema and television—are in no way the same thing as “prose.” Rather, I would argue that we need to speak the language of versification, stanza, and epic in order to crack open serial television—which, again at its best, is not the only the most interesting stuff happening on television right now but the most interesting stuff happening in art.
Okay—at this point, you may be a little confused by my references to, and my mystical interest in, the “possible.” You came to hear a little smack being talked; and I’m happy to oblige. I should acknowledge, by way of transition, that I will not be directly claiming that Emily Dickinson had Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Brenda Chenowith (to invoke a whole raft of series that are better than Lost) in mind when she put ink to paper here—but why, as an imaginative artist, shouldn’t she? Tony, Al, and Brenda are three of the great complicated fictional characters in the history of American possibility. Now, complicated fictional characters, I should explain to Jared and all Lost enthusiasts, are made-up creatures who bear some semblance to actual human beings. If have you have been watching Lost, you have not seen anyone resembling an actual human being for a long time. Perhaps these are located on a long-hidden Dharma station on the island; but I’m not holding my breath. By contrast with Tony, Al, and Brenda, Locke, Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Said are not so much characters as amalgams and vectors and avatars, or plotted diagrams of behavior and response. The flashback (and now flashforward) structure of Lost claims to balance, in each episode, the rip tide of plot with an individual attention to one of these, well, “characters,” I’ll say, for lack of a better word—but in each instance of time-shifting between present and past, or present and future, the show hews to a schematic notion of psychology, one that actually flattens out each character further, each time we bounce back and forth. By contrast, the fictional characters—again, made-up creatures who bear some semblance to actual human beings—of The Sopranos and Deadwood and Six Feet Under get muddier, harder to figure out, the more we know them.
The “some semblance” part is crucial, of course. Tony, Al, and Brenda are as much fictional as real, if not more fictional than real. But the lie that we have been told so long about what we should desire from fictional characters—that they learn stuff as they go along, that past events automatically trigger specific present responses, that they are “reliable” or “understandable” in some epistemologically fixed ways—is exactly where Tony, Al, and Brenda deviate from the template, and therefore appear to deviate from the “plausible” or “real.” But of course real people do not learn stuff as they go along—or, they do and they don’t—and real people do not have direct conduits between memory and behavior, and real people are understandable sometimes, and not understandable at other times, to the consternation of anyone who has ever met real people. (Again, I would be happy to introduce Jared to some specimens, of which there may be some in this very room, after the debate.) It is precisely the fact that Tony and Al and Brenda are all over the map, when it comes to things like “consistency” (the hob-goblin of the well-made story) or “likability,” or “reliability,” that makes their series worth watching again and again.
Lest you think I am just invested in some old-fashioned idea of “people,” to the exclusion of other considerations, allow me to touch on two other areas of Lost’s deficiency. The first has to do with music—an issue that may not seem vital, unless you think of television as a medium of images without sounds. Lost, as you will know if you have seen five seconds of the show, features a ubiquitous score, composed by the mysteriously celebrated Michael Giacchino. This score tells us a number of useful things: when we should be scared (and how much we should be scared), when we should feel sad (and how much we should feel sad), when we should feel comforted (and how comforted we should feel), and many other things that real people are reputed to experience, but which the music must repeatedly cue us to, since watching Lost dims our sense about what real people may or may not do, if they exist at all. This aural strategy is of course inherited from the cinema. But this is not just cinema tout court (I get to use phrases like that, since I’m playing “high” here). The heavy scoring of cinema is a legacy from the 1970s and 1980s, when people such as John Williams—most definitely not a real human being—were given license to score the hell out of films, to keep us in a constant state of alertness about what it is we are feeling or thinking, right now, whether we know it or not. Lost’s use of symphonic scoring underlines what I consider to be the series’ new-fangled old-fashionedness, that is the ways in which it dresses up a series of conventions (such as conventions of character and psychology) with the razzmatazz of time shifts and plot twists. You see, people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—nefarious men who have made John Williams very rich—are extremely worried that you will not understand what is going on, on the level of affect, at every moment of their films; the makers of Lost, while quite happy to have us not understand what is going on on the level of fact or logic, are equally concerned about our potential affective wanderings. By contrast, The Sopranos uses no score. While the song “Woke Up This Morning” always plays over the opening credits, a different song plays over each iteration of the closing credits; scattered through each episode (and I do mean scattered, compared to the insistent music of Lost) are bits and pieces of music, all pre-existing, ranging from 18th-century Italian song to rock to rap to country, most often diegetically—as music within the reality of the world presented—musical parts that exist in some kind of conversation or argument with the people, places and events depicted. This radically different use of music forces us to shift modes, genres, cultures, and centuries—unlike the corn syrup of Michael Giacchino—in ways that are frequently unanticipated, and quite often for reasons that remain unelaborated. If, in theory, Lost asks us to think about clues and solutions, The Sopranos asks us to think about…well, it’s hard to finish that sentence, since what The Sopranos asks us to think about changes so frequently from episode to episode, and moment to moment.
For the second area of deficiency, let’s go back to the movies, and what I’m calling Lost’s newfangled oldfashionedness. For all its hype as Television 2.0, or 3.0—or 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 32.0; that’s a little joke for Lost fans—Lost’s serial structure is in many ways much closer to that of cinematic serials from the adolescence of cinema, focused on cliffhangers, action, and a kind of communal audience experience. Not—to quote a beloved television character—that there’s anything wrong with that. But I’d argue that Lost doesn’t really explore the possibilities—there’s that word again—of television’s particular serial dimensions in truly innovative or complex ways. Its process has much less to do with televisual storytelling as such and more with creating narrative universes—drawing on some models that are older than television, such as theatrical serials, and some that are newer. The newer model that Lost most manifestly incorporates is also a visual narrative that people experience through the television box—namely, the video game. Again: not that there’s anything wrong with that. But neither The Perils of Pauline nor Halo 3 explores the particular possibilities of televisual storytelling; and they are likewise completely uninterested in depicting real people. The logic of the cliffhanger and the logic of the video game are the same—some horrific fate is about to destroy us, and…and then we hit reset, or we prepare for the way in which one installment’s cliffhanger is resolved only to present another cliffhanger, in a loop of the unpredictable which is completely predictable.
By contrast, here are two recent comments from David Chase, the infamous creator of The Sopranos, on television and storytelling. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the current television landscape, he remarked: “I still find TV to be a franchise-ridden bog. There still seems to be a very intense interest in institutions and not as much interest in the existential situation of being alive.” And in Variety—see, I use only the most academically sophisticated sources—he said, about his show: “What interested us was not the mob hits but the boringness in between.” The existential situation of being alive and the boringness in between—this sounds like a recipe for Antonioni, or Bergman, or Camus, rather than television. And indeed Chase has always lamented his long career in television, one in which for many years he took the money and wrote, even as he really aspired to be a mid-twentieth-century cinematic auteur. We can only be grateful for his long imprisonment in TV, since it forced him both to understand the medium deeply and to loathe it deeply—a tension between formal self-confidence and self-hatred that is exactly at the center of how The Sopranos operates. By laboring in the “franchise-ridden bog” for his pre-Sopranos career, Chase learned the craft at its most conventional and conservative; and The Sopranos never forgets that it is television, never ignores a basic lust for suspense or blood or amusement, or a sense of shapeliness. But television serials, unlike two-hour movies or even novels, can do much more than posit the existential, or the boring; they can enact the existential, the uncertain, the contingent—because of their sprawling length, and because of their use of actors who inevitably change and grow and shrink in body size, and because of the unanticipated circumstances of real-world events that have the potential to intrude on the evolving narrative (as, say, 9/11).
Now, this element of the existential has always been available to, even if it has never really been exploited by, television serials. It’s the synthesis of the programmatic with not just the existential but with the “boring,” with stuff not happening, with therapy sessions that go nowhere, with dreams of limited explicability, with characters that dawdle or avoid, with episodes that resolutely fail to follow a three-act model of situation, conflict, and resolution—that’s what’s new, not just in television but in any art form. Not that the boring is in and of itself a narrative desideratum (again, I get to use words like that); but the boring is one of the most prominent aspects of The Sopranos’ most compelling mob story—not the represented battle between New Jersey and New York, but the battle of a medium at war with itself, a string of kneecappings and reprisals where the systems of television serials—the large cast, the interwoven threads, the A, B, and C stories of individual installments—clash repeatedly with aesthetic values that reject all such established patterns and purposes. Some of the most spectacular incidents in the series’ civil war go by the name of “College,” “Pine Barrens,” “Whoever Did This,” “Long Term Parking,” “Soprano Home Movies,” and “Kennedy and Heidi,” individual episodes that are remarkable not primarily for what happens in them but for the ways in which they tug and pull at the prison of television, as possibility clashes with formula. By contrast, there are no memorable individual episodes of Lost. By that I don’t mean there aren’t episodes where interesting stuff happens, or where we find out interesting information—what I mean is that, formally, every episode is the same. For a show that is all about conflict between different groups, it is a series entirely at peace with its pattern and shape. Interesting art, it seems to me, is always at war with pattern and shape, even as it is unable to resist everything that pattern and shape promise.
Speaking of pattern and shape. In a few strokes, I want to sketch out what for me is the most compelling aspect of the best television serials. By beginning with possibility and poetry and Dickinson—a writer who is also, it seems to me, both at war with, and in love with, pattern and shape—I want to argue that it is precisely the language of prosody that is most useful in thinking about serial television at its best, and that really it is the tradition of verse, and of verse narrative, that is in some ways the true precursor of The Sopranos and Deadwood and Six Feet Under and Mad Men, even more than the Victorian novel. Art that is broken, on purpose: that’s how I would define both poetry and serial fiction. How it is broken, into how many pieces it is broken, what we have to do to collect what is broken—those things are at the center of how they operate. Here are some directions we could go with this. Let’s consider first the 12- to 13- episode length of the seasons of shows like The Sopranos (by contrast with the 23-episode megaplex of network shows, including the first three seasons of Lost). That length is an approximation of perhaps the most battle-hardened lyric form, the sonnet—a chunk of art (14 lines and 12-13 episodes) that’s long enough and also too short. (“I dwell in Possibility,” by the way, is 12 lines long.) This 12- or 13-episode arc is an accident of scheduling to which these narratives have had to fit themselves—by trial and error, without the established conventions of the Italian or English sonnet, with their rhymes and octaves and turns. The serials are experiments in prosody—trying out, adopting, and discarding formal patterns and shapes as they go along—which is what makes these series that I have been lumping together in fact so radically different from each other. Some prosodic elements that I detect include the quatrain—the particular, often peculiar quality of the first four episodes of a season, and of the first season of a series especially; the caesura, the episode (though by no means required) at some point during a season that offers a kind of break or rupture, not so much in terms of story event (although can be part of it) as in structure and style; the couplet, or multi-episode closing gesture of the season; and simply the weight of a season itself, a form for which there is no precedent in narrative—something less than a novel, something more than a volume.
Now, while I have borrowed here some of the technology of the lyric, the epic, as verse narrative, is also a useful analogue—starting even with the metrical atom of classical storytelling, the dactylic hexameter of Homer and Virgil, a line of verse that drifts somewhere between 13 or 14 or 15 syllables—a line of verse that enacts, line after line, the mob warfare between possibility and formula. I would particular claim The Odyssey as a vital forbear of the television serial, and indeed of The Sopranos in particular, which inherits its predecessor’s anxiety of influence, its commingling of the domestic and the martial, its simultaneously linear and circular movements, its famously abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, and its overconfident, hypocritical, murderous, manipulative liar of a hero. And that inheritance is primarily, I am arguing, one that has do to with an art form that cares about the real and the constructed, the fact and the lie, shapelessness and shape, in combustible ways that Lost and its ilk never attempt. You, Jared, can have Grand Theft Auto and Michael Giacchino; I’ll take The Odyssey and Emily Dickinson.
Now…that should be my closing line. But I need to say something more—more important than all of the very important things that I’ve been saying. The deep truth (or perhaps the deep lie) is that Jared and I are much less antagonists across a divide than a bickering couple, since we have common enemies far more dangerous than the popguns that we can aim at each other. The most calamitous of these enemies goes by the name of media studies—an academic discipline that was concocted, I would argue, before there was anything worth studying in it. Let me explain what is deeply dangerous about this discipline, as it currently stands. For years, television has been treated as if it were a toaster. You can put a whole bunch of things in a toaster—a slice of bread, a bagel, a waffle—and it all comes out as one thing: toast. By this logic, everything that comes out of television has been treated as “media,” as homologous texts that can be raided to tell us about “culture” and “values” and “representation”—as if The Sopranos, Full House, The Daily Show, and infomercials were all the same substance. But television is not a toaster; television is a printing press. Just as we would mock a bookstore that had only one section, called “Writing,” so we should mock the all-consuming leviathan called “Media.” That doesn’t mean we can’t study writing, or media; but to suggest that an elegy, a pop psychology book, a computer manual, and an encyclopedia are essentially interchangeable objects, with no formal, aesthetic, procedural or substantive differences, is absurd. So, my interest in defending the “high” against the “low” today is not to defend The Sopranos against Lost. Indeed, unlike my co-debater today, I have actually written about Lost; indeed, I have written about it as if it were a “high” text, alongside the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, perhaps the signature auteur of 1990s European art cinema—about as high as you can get. What I am advocating, first and foremost then, is a “high” approach to television serials, no matter their name—if they merit such an approach. I am advocating this not because the “high” approach, which considers form, narrative and poetic history, and the contingent, is inherently more worthwhile than the “low” approach—although I will confess a bias in this regard. I am advocating this because the “high” approach is virtually absent from media studies as a discipline—indeed, by its nature, media studies finds the “high” approach to be inherently suspect, because it does not flatten out distinctions of shape and style. To me, the “high” is the possible, and the “low” is the probable. The probable is fine, if you’re a scientist; but I’m not a scientist, and television serials, at their best, are not science either. They’re art. And to discuss art, we need the possible, and the illogical logic of mob warfare.