American TV series are the new 'great novels' of our times
Television series, once considered too low-brow to be worthy of academic study, have become a mainstay of university curricula and frequent fodder for critical analysis. Academics now compare series like Breaking Bad or 24 to Shakespeare and Dickens.tv Updated: Dec 05, 2013 11:35 IST
Academics delve into TV series not only for their artistic merit but also for their sociological or historic value, often comparing them to literary standards such as Shakespeare or Dickens.
"Intellectuals scorned TV series for around 40 years," said French writer and philosopher Tristan Garcia. "And suddenly, with quality television in the United States and the emergence of cable in the 1990s, there was a sort of revelation, beginning with Twin Peaks and ER. Then there was a golden age at the end of the '90s and the start of the 2000s," he said.
Before the advent of cable and speciality channels, "quality TV" was limited to programming on government-funded public stations.
Garcia, who authored a 2012 book on the taboo-shattering hit series Six Feet Under, said: "Today, series enjoy total cultural legitimacy," putting Six Feet Under on a par with the works of Proust or Dostoyevsky.
"The impact of this series on me was similar to that of reading Tolstoy or watching (Ingmar) Bergman's Fanny and Alexander," he said, adding that the series on a family of undertakers "teaches us to die".
Media specialists as well as historians, sociologists, literary critics and philosophers pore over the series to analyse what they say about their time and place, and how their narratives are constructed.
"You don't study them as mere transient TV programmes but as cultural works that convey a certain view of the world and a certain way of narrating it," said Sarah Hatchuel, a professor of English literature at the University of Le Havre in northwest France.
Her specialities include both Shakespeare and the survival drama series Lost.
"These series are complex in aesthetic and narrative terms, maybe even more than cinematic works, because they play out over time," she added.
The shows have spawned a plethora of books such as American journalist Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution and Breaking White: An Introduction to Breaking Bad by Pearson Moore, published this year and last.
In 2010 researcher Barbara Villez set up an international exchange forum called S.E.R.I.E.S. (Scholars Exchanging and Researching on International Entertainment Series) to encourage academic dialogue on the subject.
Villez, a professor of legal languages and cultures at the University of Paris VIII, was the author in 2005 of a book on the subject later translated as Television and the Legal System.
Last year, the French academic publishing house Presses Universitaires de France launched a collection of books on TV series by academics in the human and social sciences.
"A (TV) series should be viewed like any other work," said Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer, who directs the collection, while admitting: "There's still some resistance at the universities."
Vilmer, who teaches military law, does not hesitate to use Generation Kill in his courses at the Paris Political Studies Institute and the St Cyr Military School.
"Before us, those who began to study cinema in the 1960s were told that it wasn't really an art," recalls Monica Michlin, an expert in American literature and author of publications on The Wire and 24.
After the search for "the great American novel", today TV series such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad can collectively be considered "the great novel of our time", Garcia said.