TV Is for Dummies
Stop comparing television shows to great novels. They’ll never be as good.
And then, the coup de grace, coming with one word: “embarrassingly.” Matilda, mentioned in the paragraph’s last sentence, is Mrs. Wix’s dead daughter, having passed away when she was not much older than Maisie herself. Maisie is confused; she is told the child is now in heaven, yet she was taken by Mrs. Wix to visit Matilda’s grave—the latter being “little” and “huddled,” a pairing of words with which James conveys more sorrow and misfortune than others have in entire volumes—in Kensal Green. For Matilda to be both up in the sky and down in the dirt of Kensal Green is, to Maisie’s young mind, embarrassing, as if it somehow reflects poorly on Mrs. Wix’s inability to explain Matilda’s whereabouts in a way that makes sense.
This is, to borrow the title of Wood’s book, how fiction works. TV, by contrast, works by having some guy shoot another guy, or shoot another guy and then talk about it with his shrink, or cheat on his wife, or break the law. Even when it delves deeper than ever before into the machinations of morality—as Breaking Bad, again, does very well—it is only free to consider these questions by having its protagonist always moving, always doing, always on the make.
Whatever else serious art accomplishes, it is committed to giving us a report of our condition, as idiosyncratic and insufferable and immensely complex as it is. It tells us something worth knowing about what it’s like to be human, to think and to feel and to be. Like all the great novels, What Maisie Knew performs that operation with a small and sharp scalpel, with insights and emotions cascading from every minute observation and every word. Breaking Bad approaches the same procedure with a sledgehammer; it titillates more than it truly moves, because its basic building blocks are not elastic words but cumbersome actions. It’s all it could ever do: It’s only a TV show.
As the summer begins and television seasons end, we—sometimes referred to, occasionally without irony, as the people of the book—might consider stepping away from the amorous ad men and witty dwarves and murderous crime kingpins and instead read something. Like a fine meal, it takes longer, and it lacks the binge’s euphoric high of having consumed a lot of something very sweet very fast. But it leaves you with the unparalleled satisfaction of having exercised your fundamental rights as a human being: the right to think, the right to reflect, the right to contain multitudes.
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Helen Fielding’s heroine isn’t Jewish, but her internal conflict is acutely familiar to Jewish women