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Reading the New TV

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Last year, Jennifer Egan wrote a piece of short fiction for The New Yorker, called "Black Box," that she designed for Twitter. Beginning on May 24, TNY's fiction department tweeted the story in 10 nightly installments before printing it complete in the magazine. I hadn't read any Twitter fiction but admired Egan, so I sat down the first night to watch. The six opening tweets hooked me. Wondering what to call the experience (punctuated unfolding?), I followed avidly to the end and re-read "Black Box" as soon as I received the printed magazine. Surely something was new about this, my overexcited brain proposed.

Was I right? As Kirby used to say in the Hertz car-rental ads, "Not exactly." If you close one eye and hold your head just so, you can see parallels for this in earlier times, and even in other media today.

Way back in 1759, Laurence Sterne began publishing Tristram Shandy in parts. Apparently he wrote and published a volume or so whenever he felt like it; the novel eventually ran to nine volumes released over about eight years without ever reaching a conclusive ending. At almost the same time, Tobias Smollett (a name that begs to be re-used) began serializing his novel The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves in a monthly magazine he had just launched. Fast-forward a few decades; in the 19th century, serialization became quite the thing. Charles Dickens first published all of his novels serially, from The Pickwick Papers (begun in 1837) through Our Mutual Friend, the last one he completed (published in 1864-65). Wilkie Collins did it; Henry James did it. Even James Joyce did it, publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man serially (1914-15) and doing it again with Ulysses (1918-20).

Fast-forward again. The new serial forms of the 20th century, in particular the TV series, were for the most part simple, morally unambiguous, and open-ended. How hard was it to drop into any of the Star Trek shows and find your footing? It did matter a little what happened along the way, as with Dallas (1978-91), or at the end, as with The Fugitive (1963-67); the ravening desire to learn who shot J.R. infiltrated a ballet audience I was part of one night. But to be snooty about it -- which I can do because I watched some of that stuff myself -- these were pretty shapeless tales, which as much as anything else satisfied a repetition compulsion.

Eventually, the idea of doing more and better dawned on the creators of TV shows. Since sometime in the '90s, the most ambitious of these men and women have been charting the path of characters, situations, and themes across multiple story arcs (episode, season, entire run) and employing what writer Steven Berlin Johnson concisely called "complex, multithreaded storytelling."

Writing in the mid-naughts, Johnson was describing sophisticated and elaborate TV programs such as The Sopranos and Lost. These shows get serious attention in academia. Mad Men, for instance, inspired an excellent book of critical essays, and also a blog from the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They're among the popular entertainments that Johnson wrote about in his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, which argued that the best TV series and video games don't dull your mind but cultivate it. In a way, these shows are the new novels.

Almost all of them have been hour-long dramas, although New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum recently made a strong case for including HBO's 30-minute comedy Sex and the City among the pathbreakers. They've mostly been on cable, not broadcast networks, in part because the FCC's onerous constraints, intended to keep the public airwaves clean enough not to shock time travelers from Dickens's era, don't apply to cable networks.

One thing about the novelistic shows -- and other successful TV series -- might be recognizable to Victorian visitors: their delivery. The tale is told first in serial installments, which are then gathered into a whole. In Victoria's time, serialized novels were gathered into books; in our time, TV shows are collected into boxes of DVDs or Blu-ray disks. The main difference is that with TV the process repeats for subsequent seasons. Sadly, if there's no second season, there's typically no DVD release either. AMC's fine conspiracy drama, Rubicon, is now gone unless you're willing to use "enhanced acquisition techniques" -- that is, downloading a torrent file.

I don't want to read a novel as if it were a TV show, in weekly nibbles across a long span of time. I don't even want to watch TV -- the better shows, that is -- on TV, in bits and bites. No doubt the challenge of keeping track of things for months is part of what's good for you, but I'm lazy. Charles McGrath tipped me to an alternative with a 2006 article in the New York Times, in which he reported discovering that "DVD... seems the best way to watch any of the new, extended-plotline series: not just 24, but also Lost, Alias and The Wire." But the value of this didn't register with me until early 2010, when a former colleague in the TV business persuaded me that I had to watch Mad Men. For a few weeks as its disks came and went in the mail, my head was dizzy with developments in Mad Men's first two seasons, which had taken nearly a year and a half to reach cable viewers.

Even better than DVDs is Netflix streaming. (Other sources exist, but Netflix is tops in my book.) This is bingeing par excellence. No fussing with disks; just push a few buttons and away you go. Netflix is so sure you'll want to watch multiple episodes that it keeps 'em coming -- you have to explicitly stop it. This is very modern, except that it's exactly what happens when you pick up a novel. I saw the first four seasons of Breaking Bad this way; I think it took me about 10 days.

Tradition dies hard; until this year, TV always parceled out its series at one-week intervals. That changed on February 1, when Netflix released 13 episodes of House of Cards all at once. It was popular and also well-regarded; the show earned nine Emmy nominations. At last, conditions were right for a serious-minded, novelistic TV drama to be released as though it really were a novel: in one piece. I watched the whole batch over the course of four days; some viewers saw it all within about 24 hours. It left us hungry for more; luckily, there will be at least one further season of House of Cards.

A final thought: The Netflix House of Cards was based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. And what was it based on? A novel.