Whenever Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle gets my Irish up by straying into politics, I pray that Clancy will lower the boom boom boom on him.
But if political Doyle deserves the fate of fictional Clancy's foes in the famous song from Jack Benny's 1940s radio show, TV critic Doyle is one of the most perspicacious fight pickers in the Globe and Mail's pages.
In Monday's column, he took on and quickly laid out cold the favoured trope-a-dope of every cultural snob in Canada, i.e. that television is an idiot's wasteland unfit for serious minds.
Doyle made the point that he brings to his TV critic's role not only a wealth of journalistic experience but also a Master's degree in Anglo-Irish Studies from University College, Dublin. It was not braggadocio. It established his bona fides as a writer steeped in the milieu of the masters of English literature.
Against that background, he is still regularly confronted with the derisive claim that "Television is stupid. Books are serious." It is, he writes, a ridiculous dichotomy.
"The very idea that some hack writer, churning out the clichés of Canadiana, is a serious artist while the creator of Mad Men and his team are airheads is not only dated, it is wrong!"
He is, of course, absolutely right. Any honest person who has watched any of the programs Doyle cites to back up his argument—Mad Men, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, etc.—must concede that the scripts for such shows are on par with the best literary writing of the era. From the mechanics of dialogue and plotting to the moral seriousness of their fictions, they are consistently as good as it gets.
"Mad Men stands as an example of how cable-TV series have replaced the novel as the most significant storytelling form of our time," Doyle writes.
Again, it is impossible for me to see this as anything but a clear-eyed assessment of reality—and I both write literary fiction and read it voraciously. If Doyle is lowering the proverbial boom boom boom on books, he is entirely justified because he is simply telling the truth.
The questions that remain are why this is so, and what it means for our cultural future in the broadest sense of the term. Part of the 'why' is simply the stunning improvement in sheer writing quality that the series identified by Doyle represent.
I remember as if it were an historic event my first encounter with The Sopranos. I came to the series after it had been on for a couple of seasons, and picked up a boxed set of DVDs at the video store. I was almost literally captivated in that I could not escape watching it. I felt, in fact, as I do reading a particularly compelling book that I just can't put down. It was the most novel TV program I had ever seen.
Inherent to that is the technological advance of actually being able to treat TV like a book and engage with it whenever or wherever. But there is also the flip side in that televisions are now physically serious objects in many households.
Someone was telling me recently about having watched an 82-inch flat screen. That's seven feet of TV: an NBA player hanging sideways off the wall in your living room.
Home theatre is no longer just an electronics-industry catch phrase. The experience of watching visuals that large at the distance available in most homes would be comparable to the experience in the 1940s of turning off the radio at home and going to the Rialto to watch movies.
What that reminds us is that while John Doyle is fighting the true fight in contending that TV has surpassed the novel as our "most important vehicle for sociological and psychological truth," cinema actually laid a licking on book-bound literature first. The retreat of genuinely serious novelists in the face of that smack down matters in terms of what it means for literary culture, and for what culture actually means. I want to deal with that in a future blog.