Reading Daniel Mendelsohn in Harper’s, on the flawed DNA of TV series drama

Reading Daniel Mendelsohn in Harper’s on the inevitable diminution and death of TV serial dramas. Talking about shows from Downton Abbey to The Sopranos to Six Feet Under he cites the need of the plot to be finite, refers to Aristotle on drama (plot, the first principle of drama, must be whole), quotes Seinfeld (“If I wanted a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life.”), and goes on about how an audience expects the compelling main characters to continue (no death) (Game of Thrones, he says, continues to be thrilling because characters do die, and finality is imposed on each season in keeping with the novels each tracks). Steve, reflecting on All My Children, which he watched under his mother’s tutelage from the time it began as a 15-minute show, said you could look at that show after 15 years and not one character would be the same (What about Erica Kane? I demurred.) (Yeah, well, her.), and the drama was sustained.

Which was what I was thinking, though I quickly contested that soap opera drama was all that compelling–but if it were conducted on the level of Dickens, say (and my one-time agent once suggested that soap opera was the Dickens of our day), it could very well be a never-ending television series with no loss to the drama. It would indeed have to be more like life, and not one person’s life, but life with its multiple plots, so that one character who can’t die isn’t the one worth watching. More like what Jane Smiley’s new prospective trilogy begun with Some Luck might be: the story begins early in the century with one family that joins two families in marriage and goes on, so far, through WWI, following the different members of both families and their offspring, their friends, ever expanding, like life, as we at least like to think. The problem being, of course, that such a story would have no stopping point, no real boundaries, as its plots expanded exponentially outward in space and time in a way perhaps no producer has the wherewithal, intellectual or material, to sustain. Which may be saying the same thing. Mendelsohn’s recounting of Downton Abbey’s first few seasons’ plots was amusing, though, worthy more of Erica Kane’s makers than Dickens or Smiley, and who ever thought that preeclampsia and fatally swerving roadsters would elicit a laugh? Surely not the dreamers at the BBC.

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