Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Television as an Epic Medium

This essay fragment focuses on the capacity of television to be an "epic medium." Though the Internet has definitely surpassed the television set in terms of influence, I think that television has produced highly singular works, works that are uniquely and exclusively televisual, if I may. They share traits with other media, particularly the novel and film, but they are unique: they demand to be seen as television and to not be looked down at from other genres. They do not aspire to be other genres. The Wire, Tremé, The Sopranos, and Mad Men are just a few examples of great television, period.

As Christopher R. Beha writes in The New York Times:

Near the end of his life, when he’d mostly given up lobbing oddball provocations at feminists and masturbators, Norman Mailer anointed “The Sopranos” as a cultural successor to the “great American novel.” It was a genuine compliment, though a strange one. Just as Mailer and Truman Capote once advertised the literary intentions of their journalism with the term “nonfiction novel,” Mailer now honored a television show by suggesting that it wasn’t a television show at all, but something else, something literary. The irony was that Mailer had it backward. “The Sopranos” represented the end of whatever remained of television’s status anxiety; it didn’t need to be anything but itself to be taken seriously.


(…) Even though more than thirty years have passed since its publication, the most highly regarded work on the aesthetics of television remains Horace Newcomb’s TV: The Most Popular Art, published in 1974. Contemporary television scholar Jeffrey Sconce attests to this in the opening paragraph of his 2001 essay What if?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries: “the status of ‘aesthetics’ within the larger field of television studies has changed very little since the appearance of Horace Newcomb’s work, one of the very few… to propose a poetics of the medium” (93).

Newcomb’s insights into the aesthetic nature and potential of television are still fresh. In the beginning chapter of the book, he recalls the initial reactions among scholars to the phenomenon. Many, fueled by utopian optimistism (Newcomb refers to them as “visionaries”) gave television the role of the “herald towards a new world." One such scholar, Thomas H. Hutchinson, wrote, “Television means the world in your home and in the homes of all the people in all the world… [it will] bring peace and understanding to the earth…” (2). Even though his optimism seems now outdated, it is curious that he mentions the fact of a “world” in the television.

The mere prospect of being able to perceive a world in such a small object just by switching it “on” must seem as magical as rubbing a delicate lamp in order to conjure up a genie. Yet nothing could be truer.

Newcomb understood this, and knew that by their mere existence, television genres, be they comedic, tragic, or even of a documentary nature, “create their own special physical world” (28). Containing a “world” is essential to the epic, and television has proven itself up to the task since its inception.

Another important parallel between the ancient epic and The Sopranos can be found in the creative processes that gave birth to them.

While both works are distant to each other temporally, they were both created over long periods of time. In the case of The Sopranos, it was over the course of seven years, as a product of the collaboration of David Chase, the series’ creator, with the writers, the producers, and the directors of the episodes and, of course, the actors. In the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, the oral tradition was developed over hundreds of years. A blind man who went by the name of Homer epitomized this tradition, in the eyes of the Ancient Greeks. Yet while they attribute the authorship of their epics to Homer, today his existence is almost as legendary as the epics themselves. It has been an enigma for centuries, and it may as well be forevermore.

But the Greeks needed a name.

As scholar Charles Rowan Beye writes: “Greek historical thinking has always insisted upon ascribing every act, no matter how general or sweeping, to the creation of a single person . . .” (1). We have inherited this tradition; the twentieth-century auteur debate in film criticism attests to this. Thus, even though scholars have long agreed that epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are the products of a long oral tradition, in which hundreds of oral poets participated over a period of a great many years, people still speak of “Homer’s Iliad.”

Homer is not a person, but an image, a symbol—the blind bard who could see deep into the heart of the human mystery and create a magnanimous works of spoken verse that encompassed it.

One may thus not think of Homer as this or that particular person, but as the consciousness that ran throughout the tradition of the epic—that first voice that gave birth to the poetry, which, years after the creator’s death, was alive in the voices of all the bards who followed him.

There is then, an element of authorship in Homer. And he might have been a person after all, but who this person was, we might as well face the fact that we will never know. Yet, in the case of The Sopranos, we do see clearly how David Chase was the creative force behind the television series. And we do know who he is. Actively involved in every single aspect of it, even in the selection of the music for each episode, he was the inciter of the constant process of creating this series, of setting up its world.

Here we arrive once more at the crux of the matter, one of the paramount similarities between the ancient epic and the television series: at no one moment is either of the two fully a “work of art” until this process of collective creation is finished.

Though we can now see it in its finished form, for many years the Iliad was very much a work-of-art-in-progress. We could say that the Iliad was precisely that—a process-work-of-art. It was never contained in one thing or entity, as it is now in a book. Every bard that sang it could give a new epithet to Achilles, could add or subtract a word or a verse in the moment of the improvisation. It was not until the narrative was dictated that it settled down from the ethereal and volatile nature of spoken words to the finality of the written word. Similarly, throughout its seven years of running time, The Sopranos was a constantly evolving work of art. With the television series and the ancient epic we see the similarity that the experience of creating the work ran parallel to the experience of viewing the work.

When one views an episode, one wonders: what will happen in the next scene—and after this episode, what will happen in the next one? At one point in time, the “authors,” in a sense, (that is, the directors, actors, writers, and the original “bard” David Chase himself) were also asking this to themselves—just as the oral poet, as he chanted the verse, was in his mind creating the next verse, in just as high a state of tension and mental activity as the listeners.

Thus we see that the television series doesn’t only show us a world—it shows us a world still in the process of unfolding itself.

Only after it is canceled or it reaches its end can one can buy all the DVD’s and enjoy it without the dread of waiting a week for the next episode. So we see that, in this particular aspect of the process of creation, The Sopranos and the Iliad have more in common than one would at first think.

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