Monday, December 29, 2008

Dickensian Television

[Some of the following is adapted from a forthcoming essay in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives.]

According to Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory, every new poet (aka creator) must, in quasi-Freudian fashion, slay his father/patriarch/precursor who came before, in order to establish the “illusion of priority.”

In a talk I gave on Lost’s intertextuality, I had this to say about television’s place in the anxiety of influence:

If, according to Bloom’s theory, Virgil must misprise Homer and Milton, Virgil and Wordsworth, Milton, and Stevens, Emerson; if Hitchcock must find a way to supplant Lang and Bertolucci, Fellini, and Bergman, Dreyer, and Altman, Hawks—what are we to make of a television show like Lost which comes up against the wind of not only an astonishing variety of literary fictions, but movies, too, and other television series as well? The ephebe of television—and is not the medium itself a splendidly na├»ve novice, unaware of, and hence capable of dreaming beyond, its limitations, as is every new quality small screen narrative—faces formidable challenges in its aspiration to establish an “illusion of priority” against all that has come before.

As unlikely as it may seem, the particular patriarch with whom television now seems obsessed is a certain Victorian novelist, a narrative patriarch embraced rather than targeted for elimination.

Everywhere we turn these days, Charles Dickens (pictured) seems an influential figure on and behind our television screens, and not because Masterpiece Theatre is re-running one of its Dickensian adaptations or the BBC is airing its more recent Bleak House miniseries.

On a 2005 episode of the Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead,” Dickens assists the 9th Doctor and Rose’s investigation of a zombie outbreak in 1869 Cardiff.

In “Scene in a Mall,” a Season Four episode of the supremely literary Gilmore Girls, Lorelai explains (complete with affected British accent) that while e-mailing she likes to imagine Dickens writing letters, with his dog and pipe and “fancy feathered pen,” exclaiming “Cheerio old bean!” and asking “How’s Big Ben?” Gilmorisms commonly make reference to Dickens. The following episodes all evoke/mention him: “The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton” (1.2), “Christopher Returns” (1.15), “Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin’ the Twist” (4.17), “Tippecanoe and Taylor, Too” (5.4), “Pulp Friction” (5.17): “A House Is Not a Home” (5.22). [Thanks to Scott Diffrient for the catalog.]

The first episode of Lost’s third season, “A Tale of Two Cities,” evokes Dickens, but it was at the end of the previous season where Dickens announced himself in the Lostverse. Dickens' Our Mutual Friend puts in a major appearance in a colloquy between Desmond and a prison guard and even becomes one of The Island’s literary denizens:

Master Sergeant: Set of keys; one pocket watch, gold plated; one photograph; one book, Our Mutual Friend. Why didn't you bring that inside?
Desmond: To avoid temptation, brother. I've read everything Mr. Charles Dickens has ever written—every wonderful word. Every book except this one. I'm saving it so it will be the last thing I ever read before I die. (“Live Together, Die Alone,” 2.22)

Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Lost's prime movers, BTW, got the idea for Desmond’s choice of death-bed book from American novelist John Irving, who has similar plans for Dickens’ own last completed work.)

Not surprisingly, "Darlton" speak often of Dickens as an admired ancestral serial storyteller. In a podcast, for example, they offer the following:

Cuse: [Dickens]'s getting a lot of play on Lost, isn't he?
Lindelof: He is indeed. He's a favorite writer of ours. He wrote serialized stories just like we did. He was accused of making it up as he went along, just like we are.
Cuse: That's right. . . . He didn't even have a word-processor. (Official Lost Podcast, Oct. 3, 2006)

A month later, Darlton would disclose more about their Dickensian affinity.

Cuse: And Charles Dickens was also a wonderful inspiration, because here he was, writing these great, wonderful, sprawling, serialized books . . .
Lindelof: Also, Dickens, the master of coincidence. Y'know. . . . His stories always hinged on the idea of interconnectedness. . . . in a very strange and inexplicable way. (Official Lost Podcast, Nov. 6, 2006)

Tim Kring, the creator of the NBC series Heroes, likewise acknowledges Dickens as an inspiration. In an interview with the Superhero Hype website, Kring admits that

One of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one chapter segments from the newspaper, so that's why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We're doing obviously a very similar thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people's lives come together, and it's a very fun way to tell stories.

Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, names the Victorian novelist his favorite writer ("Fresh Air" interview with David Bianculli).

And David Simon's brilliant The Wire, often deemed Dickensian, puts him (sometimes profanely) in the text: a pusher speaks of being left "standing here . . . holding my Charles Dickens" and an episode of the final season is entitled "The Dickensian Aspect."

Why Dickens? Why now?

A soap opera scholar, Robert C. Allen, draws on Dickens in order to illustrate the usefulness of reader-response criticism for understanding television. A critic, Sean O'Sullivan, contemplating HBO’s Deadwood’s seriality, draws extensive comparisons with Dickens’ work and, in particular, to the novel Lost’s Desmond saved for last.

“During Dickens’s lifetime,” Allen writes in a seminal essay on “Reader-Oriented Criticism and Television,”

most of his readers read his novels in weekly magazine installments, rather than as chapters of a single book. In fact, says [Wolfgang] Iser, they frequently reported enjoying the serialized version of The Old Curiosity Shop or Martin Chuzzlewit more than the same work as a book. Their heightened enjoyment was a result of the protensive tension occasioned by every textual gap (What’s going to happen next?) being increased by the “strategic interruption” of the narrative at crucial moments, while the delay in satisfying the reader’s curiosity was prolonged. By structuring the text around the gaps between installments and by making those gaps literally days in length, the serial novel supercharged the reader’s imagination and made him or her a more active reader. (84)

With Our Mutual Friend, “a serial fiction about seriality,” in mind, O’Sullivan observes that

Dickens understood how the serial, by its nature, exists at the crossroads of the old and the new. Unlike the stand-alone novel, or a feature film, which presents itself to us in toto, the serial offers constantly the promise of the new—the new installment next week or next month, often bringing with it a new plotline or character that will change everything. Given its leisurely unfolding, however, the serial also draws us into the past, as old characters appear and disappear, as old green covers pile up by our nightstand, or old episodes of a program burrow into our memory, creating a history commensurate with our lifespan, unlike the merely posited past and present of a text we can consume in a few hours or days. Every reading, or every watching, requires a reconnection of old and new, an iteration of past and present; and within a week or a month, what was new will get funneled into the old (117).

In a controversial book a cognitive science popularizer argues that “mass culture,” including television, reveals not the end of the world as we know it, as its adversaries so often insist, but a “progressive story” in which our entertainments are “growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year” (Johnson xiii).

And of course he finds Dickens

The classic case of highbrow erudition matched with popular success, . . . who for a stretch of time in the middle of the nineteenth century was the most popular author writing in the English language, and also . . . the most innovative (Johnson 133).

central to his considerations.

I take all of this as further confirmation that my colleague's bigotry against television is misplaced--that television may well be literature's most prominent heir and not its death.

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