The television series is fast replacing the feature film as our favourite means of storytelling; the appeal of the latter now lies mostly in the visual experience. Thanks to Netflix, the TV series is also changing: the network has a habit of releasing all episodes of a series at once, so whenever a new season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black comes out, we get seven glorious hours of uninterrupted binge-watching.
It’s no coincidence that House of Cards calls its episodes ‘Chapters’. Back in Victorian times, chunks of uber-long novels were dished out to the public in a serialised format. Queuing up to get their latest Dickens fix. Regularly produced – and very large – doses of entertainment gave room for a more nuanced exploration of characters and social criticism.
But unlike 19th century novels, contemporary TV shows are written to be watched, not read, making them a bit like Shakespeare’s plays. Comparing modern telly with Shakespeare might sound strange, but you’d be surprised how much the two have in common. Warning: spoilers may follow.
Kevin Spacey spent much of 2012 playing Richard III in London and New York – and this certainly comes through in his portrayal of scheming politician Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Like Richard III, the drama explores ambition, revenge, manipulation and ‘sportive tricks’ that stir the Presidential election victory afterglow. Like the original, Frank address the audience through theatrical asides. The parallels are uncanny; words would not be amiss coming out of Frank’s addresses: “determined to prove a villain / and hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
Frank Underwood loosely fits the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. He’s not an ordinary man – he’s got a tragic flaw. The reverse could be said for Breaking Bad’s lead character Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. While Walter White is another malcontent, he starts off as a completely ordinary man who abuses his knowledge to rise in power while losing his humanity. His storyline is reminiscent to that of another Elizabethan tragedian who greatly influenced Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. The prologue of Dr. Faustus announces a different type of tragedy – not of a nobleman but a hero of lower status and superior knowledge. Faustus’ necromancy is Walter White’s chemistry; both are tragically tainted by greed.
It’s all in the game
Going even further back through the history of tragedy, David Simon, the creator of cult TV drama The Wire has admitted to ‘stealing’ from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. The concept of fate in Greek tragedy corresponds to the so-called ‘Game’ in The Wire, and the Olympian forces to postmodern institutions. As one of the characters in the drama, Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), remarks while watching a frustrating game of football “No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.”
Unlike in standard television where we expect the hero to rise above the institution, here the institutions are always larger than the individual; and those who dare to challenge them are invariably defeated. This, according to Slavoj Žižek, makes the drama even more tragic than Greek tragedy, since institutions, not supernatural forces, actually shape our lives.
Given the complexity of modern TV storylines, it is no wonder we end up binge-watching. But the knowledge that future geenrations will be studying them in class might provide some comfort.
Sandra Mardin is a cultural detective at Flamingo, a global cultural insights agency. She watches too many box sets.