The idiot box has gotten smart

Breaking-Bad-Season-51            I didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” when AMC was airing an episode a week between 2008 and 2013. Instead, my wife and I binge-watched two and three episodes at a time via Netflix, watching the entire series in about five and a half months – instead of five and a half years.

But I have been watching “Mad Men” an episode at a time since 2007. When the show returns next spring, once again I will be in front of my television at ten p.m. every Sunday night, following the rise and fall (and, perhaps, rise) of Don Draper. I will then watch that very episode a second time the following evening, savoring it with my wife who is never going to watch TV at ten p.m. on a Sunday night, because she is at the gym around five a.m. every Monday morning.

These days, many of us have a series we binge-watch. (Last month, AMC had a “Breaking Bad” marathon, adding the hashtag “BreakingBadBinge” to the screen.) Some TV shows, such as “House of Cards,” even release an entire season at once so a person can hole up for a day or two with a vat of guacamole and a few bags of chips and watch every single episode.

This is just one of the ways that TV has changed since I was a boy in the Mesozoic era. There are shows I watch for hours at a time and there are shows I watch twice. And among the unexpected casualties of my new TV habits has been the time I spend reading. It’s less. Not kidding. Yup, I write novels for a living, and when I look at my private reading journal – far more inclusive than my public feed on Goodreads – I can see that the number of books I read each year has declined steadily since 2010. I still read a lot and the decline has not been cataclysmic. But in 2010 I read 41 books. In 2013 I read 37. This year I expect to read between 34 and 36.

My friends in publishing tell me that book sales were soft this summer and they attribute that in part to great TV. Movie ticket sales were soft as well – it was the worst summer since 1997 – and pundits attribute that simply to terrible movies. But movies, too, could have been affected by the reality that TV has gotten really good. Really. Good.

When I was discussing this trend with another novelist, Stephen Kiernan, he observed that the strength of these dramas is often that they are, in fact, novelistic: They have deeper characters. The subplots take time (think chapters) to resolve.

So far, my addiction to “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” has not had a direct effect on my writing – except for that teeny-tiny detail that I am reading less. In other words, I have no plans to up the stakes in the sorts of novels I write by adding meth cooks and serial philanderers. Moreover, literary fiction still has a far more rigorous standard for plausibility and authenticity than even the best dramas on TV. Discerning readers would challenge half the plot machinations of “Breaking Bad” if they were coming across them in a novel.

But I do find myself increasingly drawn to clips from these two shows for inspiration and tone before I start work in the morning. Years ago, I would read some poetry before I would begin to craft a scene. Now, I go online and watch Walter White tell his wife Skyler that he is not in danger – he is the danger. He is the one who knocks. I watch Don Draper show his children the whorehouse in which he grew up.

This is not a seismic change, but it may be the first tremor: The first indication that greater changes are looming. We’ll see. I have no desire to write teleplays. It has taken me years to become an adequate novelist; I shudder to think how long it would take me to learn to write an adequate TV script. These are two very different talents, and I can count on one hand my friends who are novelists who are also capable of writing TV (and movie) scripts.

And yet I know what excites me and I know where I am spending my leisure time. And, much to my surprise, these days it seems to be in front of what we once dismissed as the idiot box.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press. Chris’s most recent novels are “The Light in the Ruins” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.