In the opening shot of “Mad Men” last season, Don Draper sat broiling on a beach in Hawaii while reading John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s “Inferno.” Turns out the “Mad Men” props guy needed to stick a book in actor Jon Hamm’s hands, so he’d grabbed his English major son’s copy of “The Inferno” before leaving the house that morning.
No, of course not.
These days, everything that’s visible on a TV series — particularly a book — is there deliberately, positioned on a side table or in a bookshelf with allusive intent. Every author and title mentioned, every binding shown, has been chosen for effect. We live in a time when frames from an episode can be detached, examined, GIFed, spun into viral eternity, a time when corporations are paying money to have their brand of pregnancy test piled up in Carrie Mathison’s bathroom drawer on “Homeland”; nothing on screen is random anymore.
That “Inferno” paperback was a not-so-subtle nod to Don’s discontent, as well as to his love affair with Sylvia, as his life advances from one circle of hell to the next. Even sitting in the sun with his wife, he is, as Dante wrote, “alone in a dark wood.” (And by the way, the Italian name Sylvia means goddess of the forest; don’t think for a minute that Matthew Weiner didn’t know that.) Many of the other significant “Mad Men” books have added insight to the show’s cultural moment — Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” for example, and “Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann — but “Inferno” was an open window onto character and a clue about story line.
People who read books do, after all, watch TV. And vice versa. Shocking, I know. There was a time when no self-respecting book person would admit to aiming a clicker unless it was at PBS, but those days are long gone, buried in the wake of intelligent TV shows from ambitious writer-producers such as David Chase, Alan Ball, David E. Kelley, and Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. The old walls between what were thought of as “high” and “low” culture have become increasingly permeable, and there are regular exchanges between the two. And those exchanges feel natural, especially since many of us are often reading books and watching TV on the very same screens. Check out “Archer,” a pointedly silly animated spy comedy that name checks Chekhov, Byron, Orwell, and Melville.
There are, of course, TV shows adapted from literature, from Fox’s supernatural hit “Sleepy Hollow” to “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood.” “Dexter,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Sex and the City” — these shows are all rooted in bestsellers, nurtured with synergy, and raised into series. But they’re not necessarily crammed with book references to ponder, Easter eggs for vigilant viewers to pursue further.
Not surprisingly, the shows that are driven primarily by their writers tend to be more book-obsessed: “Breaking Bad,” for example, with its meth cooker obsessed with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and its allusions to Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a poem that reflects Walter White with its themes of transient power. All of Aaron Sorkin’s shows, with their impossibly intelligent characters, are flashy with literary citations, as quotes from Graham Greene and James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling wend in and out of conversations like chat about the weather. “Don Quixote” made an in-your-face appearance on “The Newsroom,” the Sorkin show whose self-important journalists see themselves as tilting at windmills.
The most bookish of TV shows ever made, though, may well be “Lost.” It was a bottomless well of cultural references, with characters named after Jane Austen and “Little Dorrit” and images of characters reading Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and Richard Adams’s “Watership Down.” The writers were dropping the names of these books and authors as clues to the show’s great mystery, as possible pieces in the “Lost” puzzle. Viewers were encouraged to analyze the references for clues to the endgame.
Only “The Simpsons” may exceed “Lost” in its constant flow of literary mentions, from David Foster Wallace (“A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again”) and Edgar Allen Poe to Jonathan Franzen and Thomas Pynchon. This sign for the “Wordloaf Literary Conference” in a 2011 episode was a hoot for those who’ve followed Philip Roth’s career: “Warning: Philip Roth May Be Moody.”
“Orange Is the New Black” has become the latest fun stop for book lovers. It has even inspired a Tumblr site “Books of Orange Is the New Black,” which details all the literary references on the Netflix series about women in prison. The heroine, Piper, is a reader who, in trying to look at the upside of her imprisonment, declares, “I’m gonna read everything on my Amazon wish list.”
In the show’s Litchfield Prison, the inmates look to reading as a means of escape, and the titles we see, like the characters, represent a wide range of types. A security guard is reading Stephen King, while prison library worker Taystee is protective of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” but not a fan of Joyce’s “Ulysses.” “No one wants to go through all that rambling,” she concludes.
Piper is the prison book nerd, with “Pride and Prejudice” in her cell and Pablo Neruda on the tip of her tongue. Her persnickety attempt to clarify the meaning of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is comic — so is her short review of “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn: “It was almost good.” For forensic investigators of books on TV, that line says a lot about Piper, and maybe about “Gone Girl” too.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.