By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Like many parents, I’d much rather see my child read a book than watch TV, but lately I’ve had to question this assumption because TV has gotten so good.
When I was growing up, TV seldom explored moral ambiguity or questioned the status quo. The TV world back then was uncomplicated, largely white, and populated with wholesome families and heroes who always got the bad guys.
Golden age of television
TV has come a long way since then, of course, and many herald a golden age of television, citing series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, True Detectives, Madmen, Girls, and Game of Thrones.
As critic David Carr observed in the New York Times, “The three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has been replaced by television shows that are much more like books — intricate narratives full of text, subtext and clues... In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialize with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.”
(It's also true that if TV is much better these days, it’s also much worse: consider the swarm of reality shows — from Date My Mom to Storage Wars to Virgin Diaries — that make the old shows seem refreshingly innocent and self-respecting in comparison.)
The new novel?
Most of the new shows Carr cites aren’t appropriate for young kids, of course, although friends tell me that TV for younger kids is also much better these days. But my boys are 19 and almost 18, and in recent years they’ve followed several different series that have sparked their imaginations. I wasn't thrilled about the screentime at first, but then I began noticing that my kids and their friends were having discussions about character and plot. After they started watching True Detectives, they tracked down and immediately read The King in Yellow, a turn-of-the-century collection of short stories that, in the show, helps the detectives crack the crime. True Detective is not the only show that got them reading, either: one of my sons devoured all the Game of Thrones books and then got hooked on the series; my other son started the series before tackling the books.
When I ask my kids why they like these shows so much, they talk about the engaging, often deeply troubled characters, the smart dialogue and plot twists, the complex relationships and suspense. They love the shows, in another words, not just because they tell a compelling story, but because they make them think and feel and experience life from a new perspective — the way a great book can do.
What books do best
Is this a valid comparision? Are TV shows, as some insist, the novels of today? In The New York Times Book Review, critic and poet Adam Kirsch argues that novels are far more subtle and powerful than even the best TV show: “Spectacle and melodrama remain at the heart of TV, as they do with all arts that must reach a large audience in order to be economically viable. But it is voice, tone, the sense of the author’s mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful for our good TV shows; but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they give us what only literature can.”
I’m with Kirsh — and I’d still prefer to see my kids reading than watching the tube — but it doesn't have to be a matter of either/or. When I asked one of my sons which he prefers, watching a fantastic TV show or reading a wonderful book, he told me, “I like both. Why do I have to choose between two good things?”Follow @CMMatthiessen