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Someone is Wrong on the Internet: Slate’s Grady Hendrix

December 3, 2009

When I read Grady Hendrix’s silly Slate column about how watching TV series on DVD is a grueling, joyless task, I knew I had to respond—and say that he’s wrong—despite being dangerously close to becoming like the stick-figure character in the wonderful XKCD cartoon.

But then it hit me: I should just own it. Simply put, there comes a time when you have to put aside your reservations against becoming a blogging blowhard and answer the deep moral obligation to call shenanigans when some other blogging blowhard is spouting substantial amounts of BS.

So that’s why I’m starting a new column called “Someone is Wrong on the Internet.” Since I’m becoming like the guy in the cartoon, I figure I might as well just go all out and borrow his phrase directly. I hope Randall Munroe doesn’t mind.

One of Grady Hendrix’s key points in his blathering article is this:

Television episodes were never meant to be viewed in rapid fire order. Mad Men often ends with its lead character, Don Draper, stranded impotently in the gloomy, underlit front hallway of his suburban home. Viewed once a week, this is a weighty image of existential angst. Viewed three or four times in a row, you want to scream, “Buy some light bulbs!” Curb Your Enthusiasm plotlines are actually all the same plotline, which you’d never have guessed until you watched six episodes straight. And four episodes back-to-back of the lachrymose Battlestar Galactica will convince you that the show should have been re-titled Crybabies in Space.

Now, I know many folks who will want to chase Hendrix down and excoriate him just for the jabs at Battlestar, Curb, and Mad Men, but I’d encourage them to “frackin'” relax about their sacred cows and not be blinded to Hendrix’s larger point.

This is the second time this week that I’ve made this point, but I much prefer to watch certain TV series in big, concentrated blocks rather than one measly hour-long episode per week. The key distinction that Hendrix completely misses is the difference between watching an episodic series versus a serial one. I understand, and agree with to an extent, the argument that Curb Your Enthusiasm and most other sit-coms do not lend themselves to marathon viewing on DVD. There’s just not enough of an ongoing narrative to hook you in for the long haul. Watch too many back-to-back episodes of Seinfeld (about four or five is probably the threshold, even for devoted fans) or Two and a Half Men (about four or five seconds of one episode, for most sentient beings), and you’re likely to get a little fed up with the wacky hi-jinks dispensed in unrelated 22-minute blocks.

But that argument completely glosses over the difference between those episodic shows and series that feature serial storytelling with ongoing, gradually developing narrative arcs. Which Hendrix doesn’t seem to like either:

We’ve been told that we’re living in a new golden age of television, and suddenly we’re expected not only to watch but to read essays, think about, and discuss one-hour nighttime dramas like Desperate Housewives and Dollhouse. Watching these shows is like joining the Masons, requiring the memorization of arcane trivia, the parsing of cryptic plot twists, and near-fanatical loyalty. We can’t just watch these shows—we must be devoted to them in the same way that John Hinckley was devoted to Jodie Foster.

Granted, that’s a clever turn of phrase, but I would respond to Grady’s grand summation of modern TV-viewing culture with this question:

Do you hate all stories?

It’s a cliche by this point, but The Wire has been called a “televised novel” by more than one critic. I agree—each season of The Wire is like one of the great crime novels by its writers George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane. Arguably, because of the ability to make visual allusions and have live actors imbue the characters with visible traits, a season of The Wire has even more depth than those novels. Regardless, all are great exercises in modern literary social realism. To nearly that level, I would elevate a handful of other series, including Big Love and Dexter.

When I’m watching a series of that artistic magnitude, with such carefully crafted and perfectly realized thematic, plot, and character development, I want to keep going. When I’m reading a great book, it’s a sublime pleasure to read “just one more chapter” and have that turn into another, and another, and another. And it’s the same with great serial TV—it’s fun to stay up way too late to watch just one more episode and wake up the next morning already looking forward to the next installment(s).

I appreciate Grady Hendrix’s article for its humor and the quality of some of the writing, but he’s wrong to say that all TV series should be regarded as light entertainment (I don’t think I’m the only one that finds most “light entertainment” to be deeply unentertaining and unsatisfying) and watched one episode at a time.

So, Grady, you’re Wrong on the Internet about this one. More importantly, you’re missing out. Those shows you mentioned are good stories. People like to get engrossed in good stories, watch (or read) them in a few big hunks of time, and then talk about them with other people who like the same stories. It’s actually one of the best parts of living in our ridiculously media-saturated culture.

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5 Comments
  1. Rickard permalink
    December 3, 2009 10:16 pm

    That dude is wrong and you are right, as usual, Alan. I got rid of pay channels when the boy was born, so the only way I’ve had to watch ‘The Wire’ or ‘Dexter’ is on DVD. Earlier this week I stayed up until 4 in the morning getting about halfway through the first season of Dexter, and I plan on watching a couple more tonight, which will probably extend to more than it should. When I have them all right there and they’re good, I just can’t stop like some pringles. I’ll look at the clock and say, oh it’s only 2:30, I can watch one more and still get 3 1/2 hours of sleep.

  2. December 4, 2009 5:03 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with ye. I think it is a new golden age of television and contrary to what Grady Hendrix believes DVD’s are the platform to thank. I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen lately the current slate of television epics are better than their movie counterparts.

    Take The Sopranos for instance. The Sopranos equal in celluloid form is the Godfather. While the GF has been rightly considered one of the greatest films of all time there are several things it cannot accomplish. Story arcs are one of them. Because television DVDs are so much easier to start and stop than, well, three hours of the Godfather, The Sopranos are able to produce 15-20 hours to support an arc. This allows for so many more slice of moments to give the characters nuance and depth, allowing the viewer to understand their brainwaves. There’s so much that’s gained from seeing Paulie freak out over a cat or psychic, AJ rack up a 6000 dollar bill at the club to show off to his friends or Christopher getting tight with Jon Favreau that truly enriches the story as a whole.

    The other benefit of DVDs is that you have the choice to grind out 8 hours of The Wire or Curb, or let it drip over time as your schedule dictates. Furthermore, lets not forget that the seasons are almost always released after the end of the season, so the viewer is forced to anticipate for the other shoe to drop next week. (Although this is less so thanks to PVRs)

    With television really struggling to monetize its product, DVDs are its strongest platform. Although people continue to download torrents, it’s a much more intimate experience to go out and buy the set and enjoy it on your TV or laptop.

    Televison on DVD is the best thing to happen to art in a very long time.

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