Articles

Introduction: “Television for Victorianists”[Record]

  • Caroline Levine

…more information

  • Caroline Levine
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

Imagine, if you will, a society in which one form of entertainment has dominated the cultural scene for a few decades. It is extremely popular, but most people think it’s frivolous. Some worry that it might even be dangerous. At best, it seems to be turning lots of us into mindless addicts, so engrossed that we forget our more severe duties; at worst, it serves up troubling values which we absorb thoughtlessly, transformed into its docile dupes. Those who take this entertainment seriously charge that it is degrading the whole culture, its light, easy diversions pushing us to lose touch with more elevating and demanding art forms. And yet, imagine that this entertainment has taken a turn, recently. In one or two sectors of the industry, a few makers have started to experiment with the form. They have offered long but artfully plotted serialized narratives. These grapple with weighty contemporary questions, often wittily, but also searchingly. They showcase new techniques for representing social ills and relations. They surprise and intrigue critics. For audiences who missed the original publication in serial installments, or for those who want to re-experience each story, the industry has bundled the parts together in volumes for purchase. A clever lending library has figured out how to circulate these volumes to a large and varied audience, allowing increasing numbers of people to sample the series for a small monthly or annual cost. On the margins, a number of intellectuals and artists are beginning to see these narratives as thrilling sites for artistic innovation, though most of the taste-makers are feeling nostalgic for an earlier, more thoughtful age. This is a story of producers and consumers, form and content, market innovations and artistic originality. It is a story of a globalizing capitalist culture in the process of rapid change, torn between a sense of loss on the one hand, and a restless, exciting innovativeness on the other. It is a story of serious artists emerging out of popular culture, at once raising the status of low entertainment, and facing the challenges of working in a disparaged medium. It is the story of the Victorian novel. And it is the story of the new serial television. But if there are striking similarities between these two forms, the jury is out about how to make sense of their correspondences. Is the new serial television the Victorian novel’s legitimate heir, carrying on its traditions of realist and reformist social understanding, borrowing its strategies, and even learning from its modes of circulation? Perhaps one of the founders of Netflix was influenced by an account of Mudie’s Circulating Library, dimly recalled from a college English class. Certainly the plots and characters resonate across time. “Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton,” Thomas Doherty writes, series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones “are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty.” Doherty praises the new serial television on both aesthetic and political grounds: “exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel, where small gestures and table manners reveal the content of a character molded by convention, class, and culture.” From this perspective, television is now a medium of great value, drawing the richness, aesthetic depth and subtlety of the Victorian novel into our own time. But others have suggested, by contrast, that it makes more sense to see television series like The Wire and The Sopranos as the novel’s illegitimate heirs, drawing on the novel’s elite cultural status ...

Appendices