TV bards: storytellers turn to small screen

Through the ages, writers have searched out the largest audience for

When David Kelley sits down to write, he reaches for pen and paper, in the tradition of ink-stained novelists over the centuries. True, the tools of the trade are no longer quill and parchment (he uses a ballpoint pen and a yellow legal pad), but that's not the most important update.

No, the Shakespeares and Dickenses of today use the medium of our time to reach the largest possible audience - and increasingly, that means television.

To be sure, the notion that the small screen's Mr. Kelley, Steven Bochco, and Marshall Herskovitz are the literary standardbearers of the age strikes many as ridiculous. But some social historians argue that the television genre represented by hit shows such as Kelley's "Ally McBeal," Mr. Bochco's "NYPD Blue," and David Chase's "The Sopranos" bears more in common with great literature than first meets the eye.

Since Mr. Bochco and his seminal "Hill Street Blues" inaugurated the era of the "serious TV novelist" in 1980, television is increasingly taking "some of the best of what the novel has to offer," says Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.

Part of the reason for the medium's rise is its immediacy and intimacy. "[TV] affects all our lives whether we like it or not," says writer Steven Bochco, creator of some of television's most innovative shows ("Hill Street Blues," "LA Law," "NYPD Blue").

The ability to reach almost everyone has always been a tremendous attraction to storytellers.

"People who have this ability and desire to talk to everybody, and do it well" says Mr. Thompson. "have gravitated toward the medium that delivers that audience."

From the theater to the tube

During Shakespeare's time, that form was the popular theater, which entertained both peasants and royalty. In the 1800s, it was the popular magazine, in which people could read works by Charles Dickens every week. Audiences could follow the exploits of his characters "in real time, just like TV" points out Thompson. Today, "going to TV and watching this stuff is satisfying the same urge to hear great stories," he says.

The novel hasn't lost its ability to speak about deep human truths, but the constantly evolving nature of what people consume in their leisure time has changed. Today's popular novel may be in business, but it's an old-fashioned medium. "It's not where you go if you want to speak to everyone," says Christopher Mott, who lectures on American literature at UCLA.

Thompson says the arrival of "Hill Street Blues" marked the moment when TV began to develop both a cultural and an onscreen memory. Plots began to evolve from show to show. Today's "TV novelists," self-acknowledged offspring of the Bochco tradition, have learned to take the best of the two mediums.

"Television takes some of the best of what the novel has to offer," he adds. The long, densely accrued storyline adds an organic element that a novel, with its tight, completed structure, can never have. In addition, the great shows share the novel's dedication to verisimilitude.

"You're really just drawing on what interests you in life," says Kelley, who won an unprecedented two Emmys for best drama and comedy series last year, "and a little bit, maybe, of what you would like to watch if you sat down as the viewer."

Some scoff at the notion that writers work in TV for anything other than the fabulous salaries and multishow deals enjoyed by top TV talent. "I wouldn't say they're embracing the medium of our time," says Tom Grimes, author of three novels as well as "The Workshop," a critical assessment of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, creative crucible to many of today's top fiction writers. "I'd say they were exploiting it."

Great literature, he adds, doesn't just comfort the way an evening in front of the tube might, it restores what he calls a sense of awe about the universe. "I just don't think you can get that with three minutes of commercials in between," Mr. Grimes says.

Celebrating or exploiting?

As to the notion that these writers are the Dickenses of today, Grimes begs to differ. "Shows such as 'Hill Street Blues' or 'Law & Order' may seem to take in a wide swath of society, but that's false," he says. "What's really going on is fragmentation. You've got six or seven story lines, and in essentially six minutes, you're solving the death of a child or the loss of a spouse. It's impossible," he concludes, "at any other level beyond the most superficial."

But longtime practitioners of the serial drama suggest that perspective ignores the cumulative impact of ongoing viewing. "You create a television show, and it stays in the culture week after week, year after year," says Marshall Herskovitz, creator of "Once and Again" and the 1980s hit series "thirtysomething."

The man who elevated the examination of daily minutiae to a TV art form says his satisfaction lies in digging deep over a long period of time. "To talk about the things you're interested in and the things you want to say to the world - to be able to do that week after week, is remarkable."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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