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June 10, 2004

TT: Plotted out

The hoopla over the final episodes of Frasier and Friends reminded me that it's been a long time since I've watched any TV series at all regularly. I stopped following The Sopranos after 9/11, and no subsequent program has replaced it in my affections. Our Girl got me interested in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but I saw most of that show in large chunks, not week by week. These days, the only thing I watch on TV is movies.

I'm sure this says more about me than it does about television, though I do think it says something about television. In one of the essays reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, "The Myth of ‘Classic' TV," I talk about what I consider to be an inescapable artistic limitation of series TV:

As Philip Larkin observed, much of the pleasure of reading A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's twelve-volume serial novel, "resides in the small reminiscential effects Mr. Powell's grip on his by now enormous cast enables him to bring off." But even the longest novels are portable and can be picked up and put down at will, thus making it far easier to invest the necessarily large amounts of time needed to read them. Not so TV shows: you can't watch them in the subway, and though the VCR makes it possible to view an episode at your leisure, it isn't very rewarding to do so in ten-minute chunks. In order to appreciate an hour-long drama, you have to consume it in a single sitting.

As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a "classic" TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I'm not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.)

Despite the growing popularity of DVD box sets devoted to TV series of the past, I basically stand by that passage. Nevertheless, it doesn't explain why my own interest in series TV has dried up so completely. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the real reason hit me. I was reflecting on my loss of interest in The Sopranos when a different question formed in my mind: When was the last time I read a new novel? It took a moment for me to come up with the answer: I read Ed Lin's Waylaid back in February. So what have I been doing instead? Ever since I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, I've been seeing two or three plays a week, which appears to satisfy most of my interior demand for plot-driven narrative. When I'm not watching a play or a film, I now find I'd just as soon go to the ballet, look at paintings, or listen to music. And what do these latter art forms have in common? They're not narrative-driven, at least not in the way that novels and dramatic TV series require you to follow a verbally articulated story line as it unfolds through time. I get enough of that at the office.

I don't mean to make this sound any more significant than it is, but I do think it's worth mentioning. As an aesthete with an unusually wide-ranging experience of the arts, I'm struck by the way in which my artistic interests fluctuate over time. Right now, for instance, I probably spend more time thinking about theater and the visual arts than, say, classical music, and I definitely devote far more time to them than to prose fiction. Six months from now, of course, I'll probably feel differently. Back in January, I wrote in this space about how music had lost its savor for me, a development I found puzzling and a bit troubling:

I've spent the better part of my life up to my ears (so to speak) in music of all kinds. After literature, music was my first art form, and it remains the one I know most intimately. I "speak" it as naturally as I speak English. I write a lengthy essay about musical matters nearly every month for Commentary. That's why it feels strange to find the spring no longer flowing. It's as if I've become alienated from myself, in much the same way that the victim of a stroke might feel he was no longer himself. I'm not all here.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, the English novelist, told a friend late in life that she could no longer read Jane Austen with pleasure, not because her admiration for Austen had lessened but because she'd read her novels so many times that she had them virtually by heart, and hence could no longer be surprised by them. When I read that, I wondered: is it really possible to exhaust a masterpiece? Much less an entire art form? I can't imagine being unable to hear anything new in Falstaff or the Mozart G Minor Symphony, though I suppose it could happen. And as for a person who came to feel that music or painting or poetry had nothing more to say to him, he'd be in dire straits indeed. Such a terrible prospect puts me in mind of one of Dr. Johnson's most famous utterances: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." The arts are like that. To be tired of them is to be tired of life.

Needless to say, I'm not tired of life--far from it--and even though I do seem to be tired of music, I know the time will come when I fall in love with it all over again....

So I did. And no doubt I'll look up one fine day and notice that I'm telling everybody I know about some young novelist whose work I've yet to encounter, in much the same way that I can't stop thinking about Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories, about which I'm preparing to write a long essay. But for the moment I'm off novels, and definitely off series TV.

The first of these developments is almost certainly temporary. I'm not so sure about the second. When Our Girl told me what happened on the season finale of The Sopranos, I was mildly interested--perhaps even a bit more than mildly--but it never occurred to me to catch up on all the episodes I'd missed. (In fact, I don't even subscribe to HBO anymore.) Could it be that I'm through with series TV for good? I wouldn't be surprised. It's not that I'm a snob about TV. The problem is that I no longer care for the idea of committing myself to weekly installments of anything as repetitive as a dramatic series. I suppose it'd be melodramatic to say that life's too short to spend it watching the same set of characters each week--but melodramatic or not, I think that might be the best way to explain be how I'm feeling these days. For the moment, anyway.

Posted June 10, 2004 2:09 AM

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