I haven’t watched much TV in the last decade. Around age 20 I became a habitual moviegoer, and after that I started losing interest in images designed for a small screen. (I continued to watch movies at home, however inferior the experience.) I understand that I’ve missed out on a golden age of U.S. television—and, thanks to DVD box sets, Netflix, and Hulu, I can catch up with the best programs whenever I want. I long resisted the temptation, though. In the 50 hours it takes to watch an entire TV series, I figure, I could explore the bodies of work of several different filmmakers, read a couple epic novels, or attend a few dozen plays. There’s only so much time in one’s life, and I know where my interests lie.
At my wife’s insistence, I started getting my feet wet with television again. I’m currently about halfway through Breaking Bad, and I’m enjoying it just fine. I feel I lack the proper frame of reference to discuss its merits as television, so I won’t attempt that here. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t compare it to cinema, even though Breaking Bad (and other esteemed shows of recent years) have been called “cinematic.” So far, my experience of watching it feels closer to reading a novel than to watching a film. The expanded framework of the series format allows for the sorts of narrative digressions and particularized characterization that feature films rarely have room to explore. At the same time, the sheer volume of scenes accumulated over the course of the show makes it easier to latch onto visual motifs and overall concepts of character, as opposed to individual shots or scenes. In my uniformed opinion, the central innovation of Breaking Bad is that it brings a Dostoevskian scope to what’s essentially a Jim Thompson-style pulp story, creating a different kind of epic narrative in the process.
I’m still adjusting to experiencing this sort of novelistic density through sounds and images rather than words. Sitting in a cinema, my experience of sounds and images has a fleeting, markedly sensual aspect. They wash over me; I submit to them. (Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, which Doc Films is showing tonight at 7 PM, is among the finest illustrations of this experience I know.) On the other hand, I can be in total control of how I experience Breaking Bad. Last week when we were on vacation, my wife asked me if I wanted to watch a few episodes—we opened her laptop and watched them on Netflix. It was exactly like picking up a book.
What the show gains in accessibility it loses in sensuousness. Nothing can wash over you when you see it on a laptop (though if you have a good set of headphones, you can still appreciate a well-designed soundtrack). A show like Breaking Bad averts that problem by aspiring to novelistic storytelling, which operates on a more cerebral level than filmmaking. And since people now carry around their laptops like books, the novelistic TV show, viewed online, seems like a natural storytelling medium for our culture. As a bibliophile, I can understand the medium’s appeal. But as a cinephile, I still prefer the self-contained, transportive experiences offered by feature films.