As the best TV grows in consistency, depth, and prestige, it’s a familiar leap to apply the metaphor of literature to the most acclaimed shows.
Collected as DVD box sets, scripted TV series line shelves like fat Victorian novels. Critics and academics compare “The Wire,” with its social conscience and scope, to Charles Dickens. Top colleges offer full-semester courses on “The Simpsons,” “Mad Men,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Sopranos,” and “South Park,” analyzing them as mirrors of human nature, time capsules, and multilayered, allusive narratives. And countless others online recap and deconstruct every episode of their favorite shows with a scholarly passion that can border on pedantry.
Cruise the Internet after a new hour of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which returns Sunday night for the first half of its final 16-episode season, and you’ll be auditing an unofficial class — “Walter White and Post-Millennial Anti-Heroism,” say, or “Fear as the Fuel of Power on ‘Breaking Bad.’ ” The breakdowns of “Mad Men” you find online sometimes go as deeply into America’s cultural evolution as any university press book about the work of Theodore Dreiser; they also offer an anti-nostalgic review of the 1960s.
Taking series television seriously makes some people cringe, of course, the ones who “never watch TV” or “only watch PBS,” who bemoan the new commitment to covering TV by highbrow-ish magazines such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. When TV writers use the word “narrative,” those people roll their eyes. But there was a time when novels, too, were considered beneath cultured individuals. The value of truly outstanding TV shows, many of them products of auteur producer-writers such as the Davids — Simon, Chase, Kelley, Milch, and Larry — is undeniable. As vibrant storytelling, they yield more meanings the more we explore them, withstanding years of reassessment. They elevate the medium, despite the forces — incendiary and pandering reality and news shows — that damage its reputation.
So it’s time for the next step: What should last? Which TV series belong in our canon, elevated to an honored position like the “Great Books” of the past, highlighted for future viewers and TV creators to watch and study? TV shows no longer disappear into the ether, as they once did, a trace of memory dying out with a generation. Digitized, they stay available seemingly forever, destined to exist as “content” somewhere in the future — online, on devices, on demand, maybe on the chip in our brains. Which series do we, the people of the first century of recorded, audiovisual fiction, want to have a long-term shelf life — to be the “Pride and Prejudice” or “House of Mirth” or “Vanity Fair” of TV?
Building a canon is the ultimate in curation. Some choices are made en masse, as time passes and particular shows remain culturally visible — “The Wire,” for example, which continues to get more attention on DVD than it did during its stint on HBO from 2002 to 2008. I expect “Breaking Bad” — so gorgeously filmed and so shrewdly written — to have a similarly enduring afterlife, continuing to spread in popularity once it ends next year. The show, created by Vince Gilligan, is a tensely told story of profound transformation, as Walter White makes an incremental change from protagonist to antagonist. It, too, will undoubtedly be led by the public into the canon.
But, to some extent, the TV canon is also being further defined every time a particular teacher selects, or curates, TV shows for his or her syllabus. Or every time the Emmy Awards are announced. Or every time a best-of list is published — which is often, since our culture is obsessed with list-making. At the turn of the 21st century, in particular, many TV writers began compiling a canon of sorts, as they chose the most deserving series of the previous 100 years. On my list then: “The Twilight Zone,” “All in the Family,” “The Sopranos,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” all of which I would put in the TV canon today. In 2002, TV Guide published its “Greatest Shows of All Time,” with “Seinfeld” at No. 1, followed directly by “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” and “All in the Family.” The same titles found their way into a predominance of countdowns, which means they are more likely to stick around for the long run.
Shows that don’t make it onto such lists, that fail to anchor in our collective consciousness, are more apt to go “out of print.” A classic such as “The Larry Sanders Show” would likely fall out of our memories, and off our screens, were it not for the critics who continue to place it on their lists. That’s one comedy series I hope the TV lovers of tomorrow will explore; it’s a superbly done satire of TV, particularly late-night TV, as well as a wry study in the marriage between narcissism and insecurity.
“The Larry Sanders Show” also offers a detailed look at the TV industry, and the country, at a specific moment in time, before DVRs and viral videos changed the landscape. No, historical context isn’t enough to merit inclusion; otherwise, “The Brady Bunch” might need to be preserved, as it represents the persistence of the fantasy of the American family despite its brokenness. But aesthetic standards are critical, and if a well-made show reveals something about its era — as “All in the Family,” for instance, does — all the better.
Ultimately, though, and most importantly, there is no single curator, no one official list of TV shows stamped with the approval of the Television Critics Association or the Museum of Broadcast Communications, just as there are no universally agreed-upon lists of books or movies or music. Canons don’t work that way, or they shouldn’t. Various publishing companies and scholars such as Harold Bloom have tried to anoint certain books; the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 60-volume series “Great Books of the Western World” is a good example of such an effort, as is Bloom’s book “The Western Canon.” And those canons have met with complaint and revision from the supporters of writers — women and minority writers, in particular — who have been excluded over the centuries.
Canons are highly subjective collections of titles, and to pretend there is an absolute standard for selection is specious. The canon is an amalgamation of the many choices we make with each passing moment. We each submit our votes, and time makes the final determinations.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.