Fiction post-television

Greg Metcalf. The DVD novel: how the way we watch television changed the television we watch. 2012.

Commented excerpts

"The shows we watch on television now are fundamentally different from what television was in its Golden and even its Silver age" (Metcalf 2012:ix).

The never-changing series

"At the simplest level, American prime-time television through the 1970s meant freestanding episodes with characters that never changed. Now almost every narrative show on television — cable or network — has at least one long story arc for the series, and possibly more within a season" (Metcalf 2012:ix).

Long-form stories

"A 13-hour story allows for a different sort of story and storytelling than presenting 13 one-hour stories. Episodes become chapters. Characters can be developed and transformed in the way we expect characters to change in traditional literature and drama. Themes and counterthemes can be juxtaposed and explored on a much larger landscape that allows for contradiction and ambiguity which would be out of place in traditional television writing" (Metcalf 2012:ix).

Television's new forms

"We're watching online streaming video and TiVo, and we are watching DVD sets. These shifts in technology, viewing habits, and storytelling have influenced one another to create a new form of television that has emerged on television but is something different from 'television'. When viewers can watch as much of a series as they want rather than measuring it out in weekly episodes, writers can treat a season of television as a single story" (Metcalf 2012:ix).

Different ways of viewing

"It's no longer worthy of comment that people are only now starting to watch The Sopranos, years after it ended, or that my friends go to the beach and the husband finds Treme on iTunes and watches the whole first season that night, then watches it again the next day. Or that Mark Maron tells a guest on his podcast about watching an hour or two of Six Feet Under every night before he goes to bed, or that George R. R. Martin (writer of Game of Thrones) hedges his criticism of the ending of Lost by explaining that he hasn't watched it on DVD yet but only saw it when it was broadcast on NBC" (Metcalf 2012:ix).

Changing the economic basis

"It's not even surprising that, when AMC decided to promote the fourth season of Breaking Bad during the finale of its series The Killing, they ran a commercial in which Meillos Enos (star of The Killing) admitted that she hadn't watched the first three seasons of Breaking Bad until she watched it all on DVD.

"It's worth thinking about that for a moment.

"American television makes its money by charging for advertising based on how many people watch the shows when it is broadcast. AMC's ad for Breaking Bad endorses watching the series on DVD. With no commercials" (Metcalf 2012:x).


"The latest DVD sets of Southland and Breaking Bad are promoted as uncensored. That means what you see on television isn't the 'real' version of the series, you only get that on the DVD set. Everything from the mysterious drama of Lost to the wacky comedy of Community is sold as being better on a DVD set than it is on television."

"These networks are no longer promoting television shows, they are promoting video narratives that are aired on television before the real version is made available on a DVD set. In fact, Fringe was allegedly canceled in the spring of 2011 only to be un-canceled and renewed after the network reconsidered the number of viewers watching the show on TiVo and DVD" (Metcalf 2012:x).

Television no longer ephemeral

"Television used to be ephemeral. An episode aired and, if you missed it, you might have one more shot to see it during a summer rerun. If you were lucky, the show might be sold into syndication and with constant vigilance you might see the episode in rerun, but that was your only chance. [...] The true state of a television series is, paradoxically, no longer on television. It is a set of DVDs that sits on your shelf in a box that looks like a book. And increasingly that's how people watch them" (Metcalf 2012:x).

'Not television'

"In the summer of 2011, television reviewers and commentators confirmed the change in a cluster of negative season-end reviews and comments about Game of Thrones, Treme, and The Killing.

" One hero was too slow or missed clues that a 'television detective' wouldn't, there was too much gratuitous nudity, and the wrong characters were killed, or the characters didn't fight back fast enough and it was hard to remember what happened a couple weeks earlier.

"The reasons varied but the underlying theme was that these shows were bad television or were not 'television' because they did not follow the (unwritten) rules of television. Instead they did things that were very common in detective, fantasy, or literary novels or plays or even some movies but were not common on American network television" (Metcalf 2012:xi).

U.K. vs U.S.

"Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, a seven-hour show [,...] had a significant impact on television makers and viewers when it aired in the United States in 1987. The influences of theater, social documentary, novels, and the short series are considered as creating very different expectations of television narrative in Britain than in the United States" (Metcalf 2012:xi).

Hybrid genres

Steve Bochko incorporated 'soap opera' elements into the cop show Hill Street Blues, which became the model for reviving genre television. Bochco's contributions to the creation of dramedy, his musical cop show, Cop Rock, in the context of music on American television, and his full-season, single-case drama Murder One are [...] failures of television that gave permission for more recent programming such as Glee and Damages" (Metcalf 2012:xiii).

The Wire 

"The Wire redefines heroism in a series where criminals and cops share the same frustrations within a depiction of the modern city in which network television roles and rules do not apply. Treme is seen to expand on those ideas to tell the stories of the average residents as it champions the community and small act of recognition over the artificial drama of television.

"Treme most explicitly rejects the idea of the single episode to tell a multi-season story of the gradual rebuilding of New Orleans's communities after Hurricane Katrina. In the process, it attempts to retrain viewers to watch television the way they might read, to expand their expectation of the rewards of the DVD novel" (Metcalf 2012:xiv).

Greg Metcalf describes television, the form rather than the piece of furniture now masquerading as a painting on the wall, as "hour or half-hour blocks of narrative interrupted by blocks of commercials that had nothing to do with the content of the show" (Metcalf 2012:1).

TV's domesticating vision

In contrast to films, "television was small and its stories reinforced a domesticated vision. Situation comedies, most obviously, delivered the idealization of the living room culture of their audience. Television stories gave you predictability and calm in contrast to the excitement and danger of films" (Metcalf 2012:2).

Reinforcing dominant values

"Certain genres emerged — the soap opera, the cop show, the legal drama, the mystery, the situation comedy — and the programs tended to reinforce the dominant values of the culture. 'Father Knows Best,' the police are your friends, justice triumphs. The 'messages' of television reinforced the beliefs of the audience, made them feel comfortable and safe" (Metcalf 2012:2).

Antithesis of traditional drama

Television was "the antithesis of traditional dramatic art and literature, where the audience watches the lead character(s) transformed by a series of interactions. Television series demanded that there be no transformation, only constancy. It requires a special skill to create stories without change and that became the art of television writing" (Metcalf 2012:2).

Remotes changed commercial TV writing

"The remote control eventually required a change in commercial television writing that became clear in the 1980s. With viewers able to effortlessly change channels the moment they became bored, or tune away during commercials and never come back, the way a story was told changed. (Metcalf 2012:3).

"Previously, a television show had to hook its audience quickly with a dramatic opening, but had latitude with the rest of the show, assuming that the audience would stay once hooked. The remote control drove the focus to writing for the segment between commercials. The writer needed to hook the audience after each commercial, offer some sort of dramatic arc that ended with enough suspense that the viewers would stay through the commercials, or at least come back after they were over" (Metcalf 2012:3).

Cable and niche broadcasting

"When when premium cable was mainly airing recently released feature films, the existence of pay cable forced network television to adjust to hold onto their audiences. (Metcalf 2012:3).

"The networks' business model had been based on 'broad casting' sending the same stories to everyone and making money on the commercials shown to those masses. Premium cable 'narrow cast' their programming to a select group that paid for their access. In response, even as they continued to 'broad cast,' networks began to emphasize capturing the right eyeballs, targeting the most prized demographic, rather than appealing to everyone. Fox built its original network audience by targeting the demographic groups — nonwhites, urbanites, and young adults — that the established networks had neglected."

"The networks started allowing more 'adult content' — stronger language and adult situations — to combat the more limited censorship on pay cable stations but, in the process, they opened the door to writing television in a different way. Television writing was now being asked to directly compete with film writing" (Metcalf 2012:3).

Film goes 'TV'

"Ironically, as it became apparent that a television airing was part of a popular film's life and profitability, films began to be written with the same emphasis on the short segment between commercials that they would eventually inhabit. Armageddon (1998) may be the purest example of this short attention span film writing" (Metcalf 2012:14).

Birth of the miniseries

"One response by the networks was the miniseries. [...] Examples include QB VII (1974), Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), Roots (1977), Shogun (1980), and Winds of War (1983). The miniseries were 'event television' that acted more like movies and were based on novels" (Metcalf 2012:4).

Towards the series set

"HBO picked up on this practice [of home recording series and viewing several episodes at a time] and began releasing The Sopranos series in VHS sets in 2000, increasing profits from the show and encouraging the transition from thinking of the initial airing as the true version of a show to the show's recorded set as the authoritative version of a television show. There had been other VHS season sets, for example ABC's Twin Peaks was released 10 years earlier, but it was rare. Most commercial videos of television were 'greatest episodes' collections of programs such as The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, or Mary Tyler Moore" (Metcalf 2012:4).

"This is a fundamental shift in how we understand a television program, the idea that it has permanence, and that it is worthy of permanence" (Metcalf 2012:5).

Preparing for binge-viewing

"TiVo, the digital television recorder, was introduced in 1999 and surpassed the VCR in ease of recording programming and the capacity it could hold without taking up any additional space in one's home. [...] One result has been the practice of recording entire seasons of a series, to be watched in extended viewing sessions after the season has ended" (Metcalf 2012:5).

"The DVD was so inexpensive that it became cheaper to buy a disk than to attend a film in a theater, with the increasing likelihood that an American would have their own DVD 'library' of their favorite films or television shows. The easy availability of films and television series on DVD for cheap purchase or mailed rentals through Netflix or Blockbuster or streaming movie rentals online to your television destroyed video stores. It also threatened the initial appeal of the premium cable channels. While they continued to air feature films, HBO and Showtime highlighted their expanded creation of original programming (Metcalf 2012:6).

New business model

"By 2005, the release of the boxed DVD set of a television season had become a significant part of the business model and programming schedule of both cable and network television programs. While 24 successfully released a season on DVD the day after the last episode was broadcast, the convention has become that the previous season's DVD set of a hit show is released shortly before the new season begins to air on television, with the advertising for the previous season's DVD release cross-promoting the new season" (Metcalf 2012:6).

Afterlife of the failed series

"'Failed' series, such as John from Cincinnati or Firefly, will also receive boxed sets through which they can develop a longer and more successful afterlife. In the latter case, the DVD set gave fans of Firefly their first chance to see all of the episodes that had been filmed and to see them in their intended order. (Fox had shuffled the order and canceled the series with unaired shows)" (Metcalf 2012:6)

"The importance of the DVD set is that it formalizes the idea that what we thought of as television — the ephemeral programs broadcast onto the box in the living room at one time on one evening (unless the show reran or went into syndication) is not the true state of television shows. The version that appears on the DVDs, in the order they appear on the DVDs, is the true version of the program.

"The most insignificant difference is perhaps the most telling. I can always tell I am watching television because there's at least one irritating bug — a station logo, a network logo — on the screen. On some channels, the bug is joined by pop-up commercials and promotional graphics that can cover as much as a third of the screen. The visual content of a television / program as it was shot cannot be seen as it is aired; it can only be seen correctly on a DVD set" (Metcalf 2012:6-7).

Double arcs

"Premium cable series provide obvious examples of longform narratives that reward more intensive viewing on DVD; however, networks have developed shows such as House and The Good Wife that initially function as episodic entertainment but reveal new depths and dramatic arcs when watched on DVD without commercial and broadcast interruption" (Metcalf 2012:7).

Echoing book forms

"The case [of a DVD], like a trade paperback book, is taller than wide in a way that does not reflect the circular shape of a DVD but instead invokes all the cultural signification of a book. Each 'page' has one or a couple DVDs, which leads to another way that the form changes the meaning" (Metcalf 2012:7).

"The [DVD] form [...] makes the important transition of turning the episodes into chapters in the 'book' of the DVD set, guiding the viewer to experience the episodes in a novelistic experience of reading chapters that build toward an ending at the end of the 'book' of the DVD set, a story that ends at the end of the season" (Metcalf 2012:7).

Women's issues

"These melodramas [soap operas] were also known as 'women's weepies,' and they served an important cultural phenomenon. They told of a woman unable to fulfill her societal role as a mother, a daughter, or a lover/wife. Women in these stories were forced to sacrifice their own dreams for others, and this suffering was noble" (Metcalf 2012:11).

"Two obvious effects of these programs were to reinforce a traditional, Victorian definition of women and the women's sphere and to provide a cathartic release. Furthermore, however bad a viewer's life was, it was better than the surrogates in the soap, so she should be content to continue to live her own life of lesser sacrifice" (Metcalf 2012:11).

Reality game shows as soap operas with prizes

"One of the strangest adaptations of the serial soap opera conventions continues to be seen in the turning of the game show into a longform television narrative. Game shows used to be an episodic distraction, but they have developed into serial melodramas of manipulation, suffering, and emotional betrayal. Whether Survivor (2000-) or The Amazing Race (2001-), Project Runway (2004-) or American Chopper (2003-2010), socalled 'reality' shows have become soap operas with prizes. The shows have succeeded by rejecting actual scriptwriting for the much cheaper option of casting abrasive people to act the way they think people should act on television. Contestants are put into artificial situations and then encouraged by producers toward conflicts that will cut together well in the editing room" (Metcalf 2012:13).

"Sbows like The Real Housewives (2006-) franchises, the Basketball Wives (2010-) franchises, the Kardashian (2007-) franchises, and The Jersey Shore (2009-) franchises provide the free-base distillation of the soap opera to a set of paradoxically un-self-aware narcissists regularly offending and taking offense, in between product placements. While a wonderful source for examining American culture in the years leading up to the Mayan apocalypse, the shows lack the density of the classic soap operas that were created by actual writers rather than editors" (Metcalf 2012:13).

Changes in the female-oriented soap opera

"The scripted female-centered soap opera does make the occasional appearance on prime-time television, most successfully in The Good Wife (2009-) on CBS. The female-centered soap is now more likely to be a genre television series featuring a tough woman in the hostile male environment of a cop show like The Closer (2005-2011) Saving Grace (2007- 2010) or blended viewpoint of dramas like Castle (2009-). Ironically, the female-oriented soap opera may be best respected in the half-hour cable comedies of female suffering like The Big C (2010-), United States of Tara (2009-2011), Enlightened (2011-), Nurse Jackie (2009-), and even Weeds (2005-)" (Metcalf 2012:13).

U.K. vs U.S., part 2

"The loss of original televised theater is often cited as one of the prime causes of the decline of British television that began in the 1980s. Ironically, the other is the expansion of the soap opera form into the other television genres. (Ironic, because the injection of the soap opera into genre television is generally agreed to have revitalized American television at roughly the same time.)" (Metcalf 2012:18).

"BBC's difference in mission [from U.S. television] can be seen in the large amount of programming aimed at older viewers — an ignored audience in commercial-driven American television" (Metcalf 2012:18).

Britain's history of documentaries: "Documentaries have influence beyond their subject matter. They habituate audiences to seeing 'normal' people on television and seeing stories about the uniqueness of a 'normal' town or neighborhood, a group of people, a town's marketplace, or a business, or a day in the average life of a bus conductor, as normal television subject matter. By setting a premium on the drama of the everyday, British television taught viewers to see the drama in the uneventful story (by Hollywood standards) as opposed to the celebrity-based big city story with great dramatic characters accomplishing great things. That principle shapes a large part of the dramas and comedies that end up on the BBC. The audience learns to read the drama and comedy of the small and the slow in a way U.S. television doesn't encoucumentaries have influence beyond their subject matter. They habituate audiences to seeing 'normal' people on television and seeing stories about the uniqueness of a 'normal' town or neighborhood, a group of people, a town's marketplace, or a business, or a day in the average life of a bus conductor, as normal television subject matter. By setting a premium on the drama of the everyday, British television taught viewers to see the drama in the uneventful story (by Hollywood standards) as opposed to the celebrity-based big city story with great dramatic characters accomplishing great things. That principle shapes a large part of the dramas and comedies that end up on the BBC. The audience learns to read the drama and comedy of the small and the slow in a way U.S. television doesn't encourage" (Metcalf 2012:19).

"At the most basic level, this orientation in British television tells the audience that normal is a shopkeeper from Shropshire or an immigrant custodian in Luton, whereas American television tells its viewers that normal is Jennifer Anniston playing an unemployed college graduate able to live in Manhattan without economic concerns" (Metcalf 2012:19).


"American soap operas followed the model of the 'women's weepies' from Hollywood film, telling stories of heightened melodramatic conflict. By the 1970s, the stories of American soaps had a broadness of character and situation with near-caricatured beautiful, well-off, and high-strung people and absurd plot twists to keep the audience in a heightened state of anxiety. By contrast, British soap operas followed social documentary in tending toward a more low-key naturalism with a focus on everyday characters, rather than catalog model wealthy, the joke about British soaps being that nothing ever happens on them" (Metcalf 2012:20).


"Most recognizably for American readers, the BBC social documentary tradition gave us the situation comedy, The Office (2001-2003). Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's original British series about a small paper company from Slough pretends to be one of the dull BBC social documentaries. The underlying joke of the show is that Gervais's character, David Brent, doesn't see himself as a normal person in a dull documentary, he sees the presence of a documentary camera as his opportunity to become a television celebrity.

"That British television joke doesn't translate to American viewers because it is simply the truth of American 'reality' shows, nonentities trying to turn themselves into celebrities through the presence of a television camera. The American version of The Office (2005-) kept the documentary, handheld form of the show but quickly dropped the redundant underlying joke" (Metcalf 2012:20).

U.K. vs U.S., part 3

In contrast to British series commissioned for six to eight episodes with one or two writers and a dramatic structure of character development, "American network television series are created with the assumption that they will run forever. This leads to many differences in writing. American series are written with characters remaining unchanged and each episode capable of standing on its own, so that firsttime viewers will enjoy any episode they watch and so casual viewers can watch a few episodes out of order and still enjoy themselves. When we discuss American television authorship, we generally mean that the creator and executive producer of a show write the first episode and rough out the story, which is then actually written by individual staff writers and then rewritten/polished by a room of staff writers under the guidance of a story editor" (Metcalf 2012:201).

"The British series [of Prime Suspect] is one long case full of awkward setbacks and struggles so that when the series ends there is a real question about whether the final result was worth what it cost [the main female character] and others changed by the case. The American series regularly gives the fantasy of control, sexiness, attitude, and success tied up with a feel-good ending. One challenges the viewer, the other tells a bedtime story the viewer has heard before" (Metcalf 2012:24).

"Where [the British heroine played by Helen] Mirren's character was abrasive, [the American] Bello's character is “sassy.” Where Mirren was a boss put in charge of a group of male detectives who resented her, the American version has Bello as the only woman in an all-male detective squad, with her male boss defending her. Promotion for the new series stressed that there will be a mystery solved in each episode" (Metcalf 2012:24).

Dennis Potter in America

"For [...] Steven Bochco, the influence [of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective was specific in the use of music on television but also general, in the permission to explore longer story arcs, more psychological and emotional realism, more realistic treatment of sex, more self-referentiality, and more meddling with the institutional forms of television genres" (Metcalf 2012:28).

Unlikeable heroes

"For some, [what was new] was the idea of a television show built around an unlikable, if not offensive, hero with a complex character. A character the audience could neither like nor dismiss. Such characters are common in literature and theater but were essentially nonexistent on U.S. television" (Metcalf 2012:29).

Autobiographical television

Autobiographical television: "The Simpsons (1989-) family members share their names with the family of creator Matt Groening. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld create a fictional version of themselves on Seinfeld (1990-1998) and then Larry David goes on to create a sort of “reality sitcom” about himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)" (Metcalf 2012:30).

Breaking Bad

"Proof of how conventional the supposed shock effect of [...] alternate realities has become can be seen in the way that Breaking Bad has used audience expectation to mislead them. Several episodes of Breaking Bad begin with the stark visuals and absence of dialogue that are now clichéd cues that the audience is seeing a dream, only to have the scene turn out to be a very real, and disturbing, reality" (Metcalf 2012:30).


"Roseanne (1988-1997) was a sitcom on which Roseanne (the show's creator and star) continually attempted to push the limits of what was acceptable social realism for prime-time television. In the final season, the character Roseanne won more than a $100 million in the lottery, and the family spent the season living a life 'like the people on television.' But in the final episode, Roseanne explained to viewers that her husband, Dan, had died a year earlier and the whole ninth season had been her escape from her depression into a popular culture fantasy. She explained that she had started writing about her life — writing that is, apparently, the entire television series — as a way that Roseanne (the character) tried to make her life better in fiction than it was in reality. The result is an after-the-fact reworking of the meaning of the entire series in the last episode, turning The Singing Detective's tormented confusion of fiction and reality in trauma into an act of self-healing from trauma by rewriting one's life as genre fiction" (Metcalf 2012:31).


"Even with Rescue Me's extensive use of alternate realities, House has probably wrung more variations on The Singing Detective than any other American show. House's Emmy-winning episode “Three Stories” is purely The Singing Detective without the music, as the crippled doctor tells three case histories to a class of diagnostic students. As viewers see the stories, Dr. House is describing the identities of the characters and the actors playing them (including Carmen Elektra playing herself) repeatedly shift between the three stories and within the individual stories until the viewer gradually recognizes that one of the three stories is about House himself, and it becomes the emotional and pivotal story of how the doctor lost the use of his leg and the woman he loved" (Metcalf 2012:31).


"Comedian Freddie Prinze used to do a routine about being a Hungarican (Hungarian Puerto Rican) who was initiated into an all-black gang because they were bowing to public criticism that they were 'not an equal opportunity gang.' Prinze was commenting on the counterintuitive tradition in U.S. television of depicting urban gangs as integrated so as not to depict any single ethnic group in a negative light in an episode. The practice is one of the more obvious examples of how American television serves to reinforce a socially normative message — nondiscrimination — by bending reality to an absurd level" (Metcalf 2012:43).


"Columbo is generally considered one of the greatest characters in television history and we know almost nothing about him. Traditional television writing emphasizes the fact the 'action is character' and leads viewers to empathize with the hero's values, his intelligence, and his wit as we see him demonstrate those attributes in solving his cases. But his broader life goes unexamined" (Metcalf 2012:78).

"In an episode-based series like [...] Columbo (1971-2003), to use an adequate and a great example, we learn very little about the hero. Audiences are given factoid knowledge, he keeps a parrot, he drives this car, he is smarter than he appears, he tells strange stories about his wife whom nobody ever sees. Mainly we see the character do his job. It is a testament to the power of episodic television writing that so many people could care so deeply about Columbo, a character about whom viewers know so little" (Metcalf 2012:77).

Long-form television

"Long-form television, with its soap operatic roots, leads us to learn much more about characters. As is often noted, a straight-arrow character is hard to write because he is boring. Moral complexity makes for more interesting characters. In the same way, moral ambiguity is a side effect of longform television. And literature. Network television gets attractive villains and ambiguous heroes — or antiheroes — when the stories extend beyond individual episodes" (Metcalf 2012:78).

The appealing villain

"The final evidence of the triumph of the appealing villain as hero on network television may be found in NBC committing to a 13-episode series about Hannibal Lecter for the 2012 season, the cannibalistic serial killer from Thomas Harris's novel" (Metcalf 2012:79).

Sherlock the soap

"The creators of [House] made something new of the medical soap by adding elements lifted directly from Sherlock Holmes. Once noticed, House = Home(s) = Holmes, and oncologist Wilson as the enabling companion Watson becomes obvious. The drug-addicted, socially challenged genius who can solve cases without leaving his office through pure ratiocination is classic Holmes" (Metcalf 2012:91).

Sherlock the reality competition show

"In the fourth season, the show threw out their popular cast of “cottages” (“little Houses”) and brought in a new set of doctors to compete to be House's assistants in their own version of another popular television genre, the “reality” competition" (Metcalf 2012:92).

Episode vs chapter

"While, in single-episode viewing, the final revelation is funny and a triumph of House's wits, when the episode is watched as the last chapter of an extended story, it becomes a slap in the face of the viewer that violates the unwritten rule of happy endings. In multi-episode viewing, the story arc becomes the tragedy of a brilliant man who learned nothing, bragging about successfully remaining addicted while badly hurting the friend who has already suffered much to try to help House" (Metcalf 2012:93).

Sopranos' accomplishment

"The greatest formal accomplishment of the [Sopranos] series may be the way it continued to honor the most basic demand of American television — characters don't change — but turned that into a central element of the series' tragedy" (Metcalf 2012:103).

Shakespearean Breaking Bad

"Breaking Bad (2008-2012) is the most Shakespearean of contemporary television series in story, if not in characters" (Metcalf 2012:109).

In Breaking Bad,"Walter White's choice to become Heisenberg (his professional alias, and an implicit rationalization as it invokes the uncertainty at the heart of the universe, as opposed to moral absolutes) specifically parallels Macbeth's choice to kill the king. The Scottish play gives Macbeth the excuse that / his power-mad wife drove him to the murder, and the play's tragedy is revealed as Macbeth comes to understand how little he got in exchange for his choice to knowingly accept eternal damnation and the loss of everything he held dear (from his wife's sanity to his own sense of honor and his eternal soul" (Metcalf 2012:111-2).

"Macbeth, the Great Man, makes one bad decision and then things escalate as he is forced to deal with the consequences. Breaking Bad is a much longer story. It allows viewers to watch Walter White, the Average Man, choose to be evil and then continue to choose to do evil things. Walter may be pushed by circumstance, but he makes a rational decision to become the villain, and then become a better villain."

New depiction of evil in American popular culture

"This is a new depiction of evil in American popular culture, and definitely a more disturbing and complicated version of evil than has been considered on television" (Metcalf 2012:112).

"The most interesting development in Season Four [of Breaking Bad] is the revelation of drug lord Gus Fring's epic backstory, his journey to the United States, building an international empire, and finally taking revenge for a murder long-cooled. In a traditional dramatic sense, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is the closest thing to one of the Great Men of the Shakespearean stage — a man who has done great things at great costs to himself, a leader, a builder, and a man willing to risk everything on his certainty — and he plays the antagonist to the average Walter White. It is a genuinely modern tragedy when the Great Man is brought down by the Average Man of the modern era, a man who will never achieve greatness himself and who is well on his way to ensuring his own destruction. Similarly, Skyler increasingly reveals a latent modern Lady Macbeth, capable of great acts of evil but only when she does not have to acknowledge them as such" (Metcalf 2012:112).

"One of the most disturbing elements of the series is that the drug-dealing former student, Jesse Pinkman, who seemed dangerous but addled in the beginning, increasingly is revealed not as Walter's tempter but as Walter's victim" (Metcalf 2012:114).

"According to the traditional rules of television, Breaking Bad simply can't exist. Its subject matter, its complexity, its length, its willingness to embrace the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy, and all of the transformation of characters over time in response to events that is required by drama in the nontelevision media, moving its audience from comedy to tragedy, and even its exploration of personal responsibility at a time — and in a crime story setting — that largely rejects the idea, make the series an exceptional example of television and a series that will be re-understood when it is only available on DVD series" (Metcalf 2012:114).

Mad Men not a narrative

"Mad Men is not a flowing narrative. The series has a season-long arc and smaller multi-episode arcs, as well as closed single episode stories, but the real narrative focus is smaller than even that. An episode of Mad Men is a series of scenes that function as zen koans. The scenes don't advance a story as much as they reveal character and then end, leaving the viewer to contemplate what they have just seen. It could be compared to The Killing (2011-) or Rubicon (2010), [..] The conceit of the show is that people don't know what they want and don't know how to say it if they do, so nothing that is said or felt is quite true to the speaker. [...] Mad Men presents a stylized version of the American past to comment on the present. The Mad Men version of 1950s/1960s culture seems much like present culture, but then suddenly turns out to be different from what we expect. Or it seems different but suddenly becomes all too familiar. These little touches give the aesthetic and emotional power to the series" (Metcalf 2012:116).

The place of the commercial break

"The meditative nature of the series survives the commercial breaks of basic cable, in fact the commercials actually enhance the narrative because they become a more extreme version of a black out. The audience has to wait and ponder what they've seen. Mad Men may be the one show that actually suffers on DVD because the scenes proceed one from another without a break in between for contemplation. [...] This contemplative effect is enhanced by a very unusual writing style for American television. The characters on Mad Men only occasionally explain what they are feeling, and generally don't do it very well. Thematically, this reinforces the mood of everyone's lives being constricted and guarded, or sends the message that the characters are unable to articulate what is wanting in their lives. However, formally, it creates an unusual experience for viewers because American television characters are always talking about their feelings. Traditionally, network television has been about making sure that the audience always knows what is going on, creating comfort at not having to think to figure out what is happening, leaving more room to feel about it" (Metcalf 2012:117).

The talk

"Mad Men withholds most of the talk of feelings that we expect in the genre as well as the behaviors we are trained to read; Six Feet Under offers a more traditional treatment of words and signs providing access to the inner lives of the characters, even if the realities depicted are not precisely traditional television fare. With Mad Men, viewers are left with scenes that require attention to a less recognizable vocabulary of behavior to try to understand what the characters are feeling" (Metcalf 2012:117).

"Like watching a foreign film in a language you studied in high school, Mad Men requires attention in a way that few other television shows do" (Metcalf 2012:118).

Paul S. Newman and Lucy

"The most prolific comic book writer of all time, the late lamented Paul S. Newman" (Metcalf 2012:121) pointed out that he had to write stories without changing the characters or their circumstances.

"Newman noted that if Lucy suddenly became aware of her situation, the series would be over. The challenge of writing licensed properties are the same of writing most American television — creating plots that enhanced the reader's enjoyment of an unchanging character, the entertainment arising from continually reinforcing, not developing, the characteristics of the character" (Metcalf 2012:122).

Sisyphean Lucy

"David Marc interprets this through a famous tight structural reading of I Love Lucy to show that the true lesson for viewers is not to challenge the status quo because any change you make fails, so it's better to never try. Except that failure makes for more entertaining television, so the characters must try and fail, try and fail, over and over again" (Metcalf 2012:123).


"Rachel in the first episode of Friends (1994-2004), escaping from her wedding and running into a coffee shop where she meets the cast, is quite different from the Rachel at the end, and yet she is still essentially the same in terms of the function she serves/what she stands for in the series. One season Rachel pursued Ross instead of Ross pursuing Rachel. But you can watch any episode and enjoy it because the point is the two of them belong together but there is always an obstacle to them getting together. Even when they are together, they become the obstacle to them being together" (Metcalf 2012:123).

The melting pot

Early TV sitcoms had "America defined as a melting pot of working-class ethnic diversity in the modern city. By the end of the 1950s, the urbanity of Amos & Andy (1951-1953), The Honeymooners (1953-1956), and even I Love Lucy had been replaced by the new American ideal of suburban families where Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966) remind viewers that everything is WASPish, middle class, and fine" (Metcalf 2012:125).

The laugh track

"The laugh track reduces anxiety, tells viewers what they should be laughing at, and assures them of their normality in laughing. The basic principle behind the laugh track is that people will laugh more if they hear others laughing, but they will also feel better because they feel the comfort of being part of a group. This is part of what Sigmund Freud referred to as the 'oceanic effect,' in Civilization and Its Discontents. [...] The laugh track can also be seen as an effort to hold off the recognition of a shift in the meaning of television viewing. If television in the 1950s was the family huddled together around the television hearth, in the 21st century, it is the individual hunched over the computer screen" (Metcalf 2012:127).

"The loss of a laugh track is an acknowledgment of the transition to an isolated, rather than social, experience of television comedy. In conceptual terms, the shift from family to isolated viewer places television closer to the world of the novel — where an individual escapes into a fantasy as they read, as opposed to a film or a theatrical experience, where the shared reaction is integral to the experience" (Metcalf 2012:127).


"M*A*S*H, was a significant shift in American sitcoms because the show was being shot without a studio audience so there was no authentic laughter, it all had to be completely added in postproduction. The network insisted on a laugh track for the first few years, so that the audience would know it was funny but, as the show became a commercial and critical success, the creators were allowed to remove the laugh track and it continued to be a hit" (Metcalf 2012:128).

How syndication changes situation comedies

"Syndication is the economic goal of situation comedies, which explains the non-numerological obsession with getting to 100 episodes of a series, the traditional threshold for being viable in syndication. Big Bang Theory (2007-) set a new record when it sold its syndication rights to TBS and Fox in 2011 for more than $2 million per episode. It is estimated that just the production company — leaving out all other creative participants including writers, directors, actors, and so on — has so far made $4 billon from syndication payments for Seinfeld" (Metcalf 2012:129).

"In syndication, Roseanne (1988-1997) becomes the working-class soap opera that Americans never got from the networks. The strains on Roseanne and Dan's marriage become more obvious, the fears about money, and about where their kids will end up, the difficulty in living with continued disappointment and continually disappointing those around you become developed themes in longform, where they are just situational setups for the jokes in episodic viewing.

"Friends becomes more about the inability of the people to find fulfilling jobs or relationships — Chandler's recognition that a paycheck isn't enough; Monica's gradual recognition that she may not become the chef she assumed she'd be; Ross's difficulties parenting a child who lives with his ex-wife and her lesbian lover and his self-destructive fixation on Rachel become more pathetic; Rachel's lousy taste in men; and Joey's inability to act, interrupted by unjustified career success.

"This is the most neglected way in which dramedy came into being, not as an intentional creation, but as the inadvertent side effect of rerun viewing" (Metcalf 2012:129).


"Taxi, one of the most highly praised of the 1980s sitcoms, created each episode to pay off on a tight three-act structure with no concern about story continuity between episodes. Tony the boxer spent a couple episodes adopting a foster child only to never be mentioned again. Louie dated Zena (Rhea Perlman), they got very serious, then she was gone, Louie was dating others, then suddenly Zena was back, only to be gone again. Such continuity flaws don't matter in weekly episodic television, but watched back to back the show weakens" (Metcalf 2012:130).

"The practice of American sitcoms making all characters likable over time trains viewers to care about the characters of sitcoms as more than joke delivery systems. More immersive viewing narratizes that response" (Metcalf 2012:131).

"The comedy of Californication is all about Hank's ironically detached attitude toward the excesses that keep him from the loving embrace of his family. The show continues to suggest that Hank will turn his life around but the structural problem is that, if Hank behaves well, there is no show" (Metcalf 2012:144).

"Series like Rescue Me, United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie, and The Big C become so serious that it becomes necessary to insert comic relief into a comedy" (Metcalf 2012:148).

The Office, U.K. vs U.S., part 4

"The sad joke of the first series of The Office is that [Ricky] Gervais's David Brent sees being filmed for this dull documentary as his chance to show himself as the entertainer he wishes he were. (This joke is funnier in Britain, where alumni of documentaries like Driving School and Airport actually did / become minor celebrities. [...] Each series tells a complete story with a different tone. The first ends with ironic absurdity as the incompetent is rewarded, and the story is over. The second series explores the consequences of Brent's incompetence and ends more painfully. The Christmas Special moves everyone's stories further along, but with a different tone as it dispenses happy endings all around, at which point the series is over for good" (Metcalf 2012:149).

"By contrast, the American remake of The Office (2005-) was created to run forever and thrive in syndication. It uses long-arc stories more than most American sitcoms, but each episode offers closure and stand-alone pleasure, although regular viewers get more laughs from knowing the backstories of characters and events supporting the major plot of the episode (Metcalf 2012:149)."

"The U.S. show also avoids change. The characters' desks might change, or they may go off to try another job or have a baby or go to art school, but their roles in the dynamics of the office family remain the same. A firstseason viewer can easily follow a seventh-season episode. [...] The incompetent Brent is replaced by Steve Carrell's Michael Scott, who suffers the same delusions that he is a great entertainer but is quickly revealed to be surprisingly good at his job. The disturbingly, and cadaverously, wrong British general manager Gareth Keenan is smoothed out into the weird but lovable Dwight Shrute. The implied romance that never quite happens between the UK sales rep Tim and receptionist Dawn (Jim and Pam in the United States) becomes explicit and central to the American series. The social documentary conventions of The Office UK have no real context in the United States, so The Office US devolves mainly into using the device of characters speaking directly to camera as an additional device for creating comedy. However, for most U.S. viewers, this is not a documentary reference as it is a convention of 'reality' programs like Survivor (2000-), Big Brother (2000-), and the Real Housewives franchises (2006-), where every event is then commented on by a particioant" (Metcalf 2012:149).

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb Your Enthusiasm:"The fourth season is built on the fiction of Larry David being asked by Mel Brooks to come in as the new Max Bialystock in Brooks's longrunning Broadway musical hit The Producers. As other stories play out, viewers get regular updates of David trying to learn how to dance and sing, badly, and his increasing anxiety about being unable to perform on stage even as Brooks assures him that he'll be fine. The scenes recall the background footage that fills much of the 'reality' competition shows like Dancing with the Stars (2005-), American Idol (2002-), and their ilk. The season ends with Larry on stage in an actual Broadway theater, performing and, against all odds, succeeding. At this point the camera cuts to Mel Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft in the back of the theater, cursing, because they had expected Larry David to fail so miserably the show would finally be canceled and they could get on with their lives — at which point / viewers realized that the season wasn't just a preparation of Larry to star in The Producers, the season was a variation on the plot of The Producers, theater producers planning to profit by making a guaranteed failure, only to have it go wrong because the loser they were counting on to destroy the show failed to fail" (Metcalf 2012:150-1).

"A show like Bravo's Flipping Out (2007-) or any of the Real Housewives franchise shows (2006-) uses the same narrative structure — a loosely constructed plot with irritating “real people” improvising their parts within an understanding of the function of their character in the story, but arguably not as effectively. (“Arguably,” because the “reality” shows are far more commercially successful than Curb Your Enthusiasm, even while being generally dismissed by critics)" (Metcalf 2012:151).

The comic book vision

"Even though he is not an artist, Stan Lee is often credited with changing the way comics were drawn in the 1960s. Where earlier superhero comics had less dynamic visuals, Marvel comics under Lee adopted what was called a 'cinematic' style of foreshortening and exaggeration of heightened perspective. This cinematic style was a dramatic use of the visual space that went where films would eventually go, but had not actually arrived" (Metcalf 2012:161).

"It is interesting that the use of visually oriented television is called cinematic. It is true that, from the 1980s, television series were increasingly trying to get the film look on a television budget. But a couple decades down the road, the visuals of comics and video games have developed original visual languages that have come to shape television and film" (Metcalf 2012:161).

"For some, [...] cinematic use of the film visuals [in comic books and graphic novels is] communicating meaning through the mise-en-scène — but the amount of visual detail exceeds the ability of a casual film viewer to absorb it. A comics reader — or a graphic novel viewer — can take as long as they want to ponder each page or shot" (Metcalf 2012:161).

Shifting towards cinema

"Even after the shift to more cinematic television in the 1980s [from 'radio with pictures'], network television continued the emphasis on words in the assumption that audiences don't actually watch television, they monitor it while doing a variety of other tasks. The failure of the Zucker Brothers' Police Squad (1982) can be attributed to its airing in a time slot when people were not actually viewing, but listening, thus missing the series' sight gags" (Metcalf 2012:162).

"The distinction between cinematic television and comics visuals on television is subjective. [... Programs such as Lost and Heroes employ] cinematic language that gets used more frequently in graphic novels than it does in Hollywood films" (Metcalf 2012:162).

The increasing use of the still shot

"The increasing use of the still shot would be one specific graphic novel influence on television storytelling. A single, unmoving close-up shot of a plant or an eyeball or a gun, or a locked-off camera shot with a simple motion within the frame — a turtle with a decapitated head on its back walking slowly through the shot, a bulldozer slowly moving into a shot of a house on a flat horizon, or a cop sitting in a car in a driving rain with traffic blurring past outside. These are all shots that ask television viewers to contemplate the image in a similar way to the demands of certain comics panels" (Metcalf 2012:162).

"Similarly, the vocabulary of juxtaposed, still, apparently unrelated shots seen at the beginning of the third episode of the second season of The Walking Dead, later explained through expanded shots at the end, is far more a convention of the graphic novel than any American film style" (Metcalf 2012:162).

Note: one could link this up to Saul Bass's graphic introductins to Hitchcock's films, such as Torn Curtain.


Metcalf notes a simplification in the American version of The Killing as against the Danish original:

"The American version strips away the visual sensuality and most of the engaging camera movement and edits. Images are grayed and slightly blurred. The constant, even overlapping, dialogue of the original gives way to long near-silent scenes and shots in which nothing seems to happen. Where Forbrydelsen [the original] places characters in a space with depth and saturated color, populated with visually interesting people and objects, The Killing is more likely to shoot characters against spare or minimal backgrounds that suggest isolated individuals in empty, if shallow, space" (Metcalf 2012:164).

"The much-criticized minimalism of The Killing is only a more extreme version of the stripped down aesthetic of graphic novels like A History of Violence and The Walking Dead. [...] This can also be seen in Breaking Bad, which often uses long-held shots in which not much happens or what does happen is not clear. Information is regularly withheld, with sparse or banal dialogue and images that viewers must interpret" (Metcalf 2012:164).

David Milch

David "Milch makes the case in [a] New Yorker interview that language at its base is an exchange of energy, that meaning exists in how things are said — an idea he explored in its barest form in a first season scene [of Deadwood (2004-2006)] where Wu and Swearengen have a conversation that largely consists of the word “cocksucker” repeated with vehement variation to communicate much more. In Deadwood, obscenity becomes a most basic unit of speech" (Metcalf 2012:173).

Note: Compare this to The Wire and Suits.

The end of voicing words

"[The tradition of weighing words for their sound] largely disappears from American writing, and conversation, around the era when F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing for the ear (and stories read out loud) is replaced by Ernest Hemingway, and the writing for the eye, the watershed of functional language in American society" (Metcalf 2012:174).

A novel of ideas

John from Cincinnati (2007) "a novel of ideas"(176): "At the simplest level, viewers watch John develop through the series like Jeff Bridges's alien in John Carpenter's Starman (1984). John is 'an extraterrestrial,' according to Milch, aware that the word applies to a divine creature as accurately as to an ET-type alien. John learns to speak by reusing the words that others have said to him. With a couple of exceptions near the end of the series, John only repeats back the words of others, often without grasping their literal meaning, and then develops a language of his own out of those found phrases that is not based on the literal meaning of the words but can be understood if one pays attention and remembers the context in which he first heard the phrases he uses. His words reflect the meaning that lay at the heart of the communication — 'I care about you' — rather than the literal meaning of words — (a statement about bowel movements). This creates comic effects as it teaches the audience the difference between words and meanings. When Butchie gets tired of being told by John that 'There are things I know and things I do not know,' he tells John to say 'I don't know, Butchie,' instead.' For the rest of the series when asked a question by anyone that requires the answer 'There are things I know and things I do not know.' John says 'I don't know Butchie instead" (Metcalf 2012:181).

No single meaning to a story

"The idea that there's a single meaning to any story, let alone any symbol, is a central ideology of the American television narrative forms. Simple entertainment television is predictable and clear, the pleasure comes from being able to not think, to let the show wash over us. The tease of the double entendre is about as far as pleasurable ambiguity is allowed in traditional television narrative. By contrast, Milch turns to a literary model that forces questions upon viewers and — most important — does not offer answers. His symbols deliberately lack one-to-one correlations" (Metcalf 2012:182).

"Viewers of John From Cincinnati argue about whom the different characters represent, starting with the title character who should be 'Jesus' for many because he's the title character, but in fact acts much more like 'John the Baptist.' Or is he 'Satan?' Or just a 'wise fool' in over his head? In descriptive terms, John (the name John Monad appears on his American Express card, in a wink and a nod to the William James lectures on monistic theology), first appears in the margin between United States and Mexico, between ocean and land, between night and day to tell Mitch Yost, former surfing great, that he should 'get back in the game.' When John needs money or a credit card or a cell phone, it appears in his pants pocket. He tends to be a mirror for other people. He can make people forget things and make body implants get very hot. He surfs very well. People treat him as a child, as a kidnapper, as what they need him to be. John speaks a lot about his father's words, which no one will understand. [... / ...] As Milch explained to [a] Religion and Media class, “The key is that nobody understands — not in the show, not in the audience. That's the point. ... John's extremely annoying to some." (Metcalf 2012:182-3).

No Emmy for The Wire

"Even as it became a cliché that The Wire was the greatest series ever to air on television, no less an authority than the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences seemed to think it was not television. In its five-year run, the 'greatest television show ever' never received a single Emmy, and was only nominated twice, for outstanding writing for a drama series. (In 2005 it was defeated by House for the "Three Stories" episode and in 2008 it lost to an episode of Mad Men" (Metcalf 2012:187).

"One explanation is that this is the latest variation on the case of Stanley Kubrick; Kubrick was generally snubbed by the Hollywood establishment because he worked in England with non-Hollywood crews. The Wire was shot on the East Coast and used mainly East Coast and UK actors. Even its writers came from outside television, let alone Hollywood television" (Metcalf 2012:187).

"Paying attention is one of the demands The Wire makes; the other is accepting a lack of clarity. At the end of the third season, with Stringer Bell dead just as the police have finally caught him on the eponymous wiretap, McNulty and Bunk examine Bell's condo and can't imagine the man he thought he was chasing having anything in common with the man who lived there. McNulty realizes that he knew nothing about him. [...] This is a tradical shift in television narrative. American television promises that even if we don't understand, our heroes do. And we will know eventually. That is the unspoken contract viewers have with American television" (Metcalf 2012:194).

"The Wire depicts a world where individuals never really control their own destiny. Instead, we are the playthings of the failing institutions of contemporary America, all of which are collapsing and crushing us in their debris, without the comfort of traditional network feel-good moments. [...] This single point may explain why, however much the series is praised, it rarely generates the likeability quotients of even mediocre network shows. At its core, American television tells us we can have anything we want if we only buy the right products and imitate the right celebrities. The Wire reminds us that we are powerless" (Metcalf 2012:196).

Note: Is this overdoing the pessimism? Doesn't American society deliver rather the boredom of materialism rather than crushing by institutions?

Denying heroe

"Simon denies heroes as television understands them and offers a journalistic sort of storytelling about people in context, people trying to get by in a world that doesn't much care if they live or die. Heroism is possible in this world, but the traditional hero is a falsehood" (Metcalf 2012:196).

Some mistakenly take Omar for the hero but the true one is "Bubbles, the junkie informant who Simon has admitted is a sentimental softening of reality. Bubbles's heroic journey is to stay alive, get straight, take responsibility for his actions and continue living, and reenter his family in the last episode" (Metcalf 2012:197).

Note: In fact the sentimentality is obvious, not least in the harsh way his sister treats him, loading our sympathy towards him, rather than showing his earlier failures to keep faith with his promises. This sentimentality and the unrelenting pessimism in other areas mar The Wire's didactic aims. We remember more clearly the fate of the young kids on the street and the down-to-earth harshness of the rehab counsellor. In other words, Simon succeeds in the documentary staging of The Wire but not in the emotional placing of his main characters.

Children as men

"In direct contrast to the man-boys of cable's attitudinal comedies, the men of The Wire are adult men. Even the boys are more adult than child" (Metcalf 2012:198) [though leading their lives like children excited by macho exploits].


"The first season of Treme may be the greatest achievement of the DVD novel in that it uses all of the narrative possibilities of audio-video narrative to show us worlds but not tell us anything. Audio, video, dialogue, setting, and music reveal the story. The music establishes environment but also comments and provides plot, becoming metaphorically, and literally, the pulse of the show and the city" (Metcalf 2012:199).

"Characters who explain what is happening in New Orleans might be right, but they are contradicted by others who seem to be equally correct. Even worse, the most articulate explainer of what has happened and the voice of one facet of the city's anger, Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), an English professor who becomes a viral Internet sensation for his drunken rants, kills himself without warning, leaving his wife and daughter behind with no explanation" (Metcalf 2012:202).

"On the way to his suicide, Creighton spends too long on screen alone, and apparently aimless, for viewers to be comfortable. He doesn't do any of the obvious pre-suicide / actions or give off the clichéd warning signs viewers would expect on a television show. Instead the form provides a clue: he is alone too long. More important is Creighton's small size in the shots; he is smaller in the shots than normal, which reinforces the idea that something is off [...] Viewers are left to ask themselves what's wrong; did they miss a clue? If viewers get as far as thinking he is about to kill himself, they are forced to try to find a reason why Creighton would do that. The shots are held for a long time and there are not the interruptions of commercial breaks, so viewers know they will not get relief. They are stuck with this story" (Metcalf 2012:202-3).

Short episodes on the Web

"Kiefer Sutherland and John Hurt had the star power to attract publicity and an audience to Hulu for The Confession (2011), a dramatic web series of 10 five- to nine-minute episodes" (Metcalf 2012:212).


Greg Metcalf. 2012. The DVD novel: how the way we watch television changed the television we watch. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger. ISBN: 9780313385810.


In the format in which the source cites them:

David Marc, Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).