Television’s Best Shows Are Taking Their Cues From Literature

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Photo-Illustration: Jan Thijs/Courtesy of Starz/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Courtesy of HBO/Adam Rose/Courtesy of Netflix

Over the past decade, there’s been a continual debate about whether TV is, in one sense or another, “the new movies.” This lively argument has drowned out another, more fascinating development: scripted television’s raiding of literature for devices that it places in service of its own storytelling, then transforms into something that’s part literature, part cinema, but ultimately and distinctively television.

Voice-over narration is the most obvious borrowing. The device itself is nothing new — as in cinema, we’ve seen many examples of this sort of thing, stretching from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (whose hero broke the fourth wall to narrate, as in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the film versions of Alfie) to My So-Called Life, Desperate Housewives, and Arrested Development. But the recent iterations of voice-overs have been more ambitious and varied — and while some of these started out as the by-products of an attempt to be faithful to a literary source, there have been as many or more original examples, and their execution has become confident and sophisticated. Jane the Virgin’s narration is third-person and slyly aware of itself as a device. Ditto Netflix’s House of Cards (adapted from a British original with the same device), in which Kevin Spacey’s anti-hero tantalizes the audience like a monologuing Shakespearean hero. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel) and USA Network’s Mr. Robot (an original series) have narration in the manner of a Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick film, granting us access to thoughts that the main characters can’t speak out loud because doing so would trigger their arrests. The most provocative narration makes the audience question the narrator’s relationship to the story they’re watching and ask if they can trust their eyes and ears. An ongoing argument about the reliability of Jane the Virgin’s narrator appeared to be settled this season when the oft-foreshadowed death of a main character finally came to pass. Mr. Robot’s narration executed a pivot late in season one, revealing that a voice-over we initially assumed was Kubrickian or Scorsesean was more like the narration of Fight Club. The next season took us deeper into the hacker hero Elliot Alderson’s disturbed psyche, suggesting at times that the entire world we saw onscreen, including moments that Elliot couldn’t have personally witnessed, was filtered through an unbalanced mind.

Television’s literary touches aren’t confined to voice-over. We’re seeing more series that break their stories up into chapters that are pointedly identified as chapters, complete with onscreen titles identifying them as such: Netflix’s Stranger Things, Master of None, and Dear White People all do this. The Coen brothers–derived FX anthology Fargo — whose producer, Noah Hawley, started out as a novelist — made similar literary affectations official in season two, when it kicked off a new episode with a framing device narrated by actor Martin Freeman (who appeared onscreen in season one) establishing that everything you’d seen in both seasons of the show was drawn from a book about violent crime in the Midwest.

Also intriguing is the way certain series examine a single story from multiple perspectives, a technique reflexively credited to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon but which has its roots in literature. Several current series, including Dear White People and Starz’s American Gods, use versions of this device. Writer-director Justin Simien’s Dear White People breaks its story into discrete, almost short-story-like chapters, each anchored to a particular character’s point of view, and announces shifts in perspective by centering each chapter on a character and posing them beneath the chapter title, which is emblazoned across the screen in a retro-’70s font that you’d expect to see on the cover of a vintage paperback. (All the while, Giancarlo Esposito’s narrator sets the stage for us and occasionally intrudes on the action to take the piss out of Simien’s characters.) American Gods, reimagined from Neil Gaiman’s novel, starts out as the story of one character and then flips the perspective in episode four to show a mysterious and significant event from the point of view of a character we assumed was dead.

The most fascinating development of all, though, is the way that scripted TV shows uniformly seem to be striving to develop an instantly identifiable voice, one that’s as strong as anything we’d hope to encounter in a thoughtful work of fiction. This is increasingly true, whether the series runs a half-hour or an hour, is ongoing or an anthology, and whether or not it has voice-over narration, and whether it is drawn from a book or play. Look back at television from as recently as the mid-’90s and you’ll notice a tedious sameness in the storytelling, an almost factorylike capitulation to norms. Discounting such striking outliers as The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Miami Vice, and other pantheon-ready classics, it was rare to encounter a TV show that could be described as having a voice in the way that you could say that a play or novel had a voice. There often wasn’t much difference between the way a typical sitcom, a mystery, an action series, and a nighttime soap told their stories. Things usually unfolded in a reliably linear way, with characters pausing occasionally to verbally sum up what we’d just seen.

This is not the case anymore. In fact, it’s fair to say that the only common thread linking every series that sustains itself over several years and develops a loyal audience is its ability to perfect that distinctive voice early in its first season, then continue to develop it in a way that speaks directly to the audience and not only tells a story but establishes a unique tone and rhythm. You can see this kind of sorcery at work in another FX series by Hawley, the Marvel Comics adaptation Legion, which just ended its first season — a tale of telekinetic warriors that moved in and out of the consciousness of a powerful mutant, plumbing his brain through a mix of literary, cinematic, and theatrical devices and unfurling its story in a cascade of wild, colorful imagery. (The highlight was a psychic battle in the seventh episode that was presented as a silent film with intertitles and scored with a synthesized cover of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.) American Gods, overseen by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Kings), and AMC’s Better Call Saul, created by Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, are as measured in their pace as Legion is frenetic, letting scenes unfold in three-to-seven-minute chunks, only interrupted by the occasional montage or eruption of violence. HBO’s Big Little Lies, adapted by David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée from Liane Moriarty’s novel, takes us deep inside a rich seaside community, telling the story of a group of mothers involved in a murder-mystery through a mix of third-person and first-person devices, maintaining a chilly distance in some scenes but presenting others in subjective, jump-cut, often-silent bursts of action, the best of which have the power of recollected nightmares. Scripted television is still a very young medium — lagging a half-century behind cinema and hundreds of years behind the novel and play — but its evolution in recent times has still been dazzling to watch.

*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Television’s Best Shows Are Taking Cues From Literature