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Like religion, TV shows must understand how to tell stories over time if they hope to endure. The Simpsons gets it. Downton Abbey doesn’t.

Liel Leibovitz
February 23, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo courtesy of Masterpiece.)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo courtesy of Masterpiece.)

Last Sunday night, with a mere flick of a finger on the remote control, viewers were able to catch a glimpse of television at its highest and lowest. Up above, in the thin air of Olympus, stood the 500th episode of The Simpsons; down below, like an overripe fruit beginning to rot, rolled the season two finale of Downton Abbey.

The house of Downton, it can no longer be denied, is in disrepair. The British show’s fall from grace is already so widely acknowledged as to have merited an entire essay in the recent edition of that unimpeachable chronicler of pop culture cool, the New York Review of Books. Its author, the poet James Fenton, acknowledged the show’s tremendous appeal, but he also noted that certain recent plot developments, such as a terribly disfigured man claiming to be a long-lost heir or an influenza epidemic that conveniently claims the life of one character and neatly resolves an untidy love triangle, have been enough to send even the most ardent of fans on the first train back to London.

But this isn’t entirely Downton’s fault. Unlike movies or plays, TV shows don’t have the luxury of taking a bow after a few hours spent tying up loose ends. Television shows are serial and perpetual, and their job is to manufacture new stories and new thrills episode after episode, season after season, sometimes decade after decade. These stories have to be mesmerizing but believable, moving but not too obvious, thrilling but never tawdry. Religion ran into the same problem first—and solved it.

Like television, religion has to tell the kind of story that will keep large audiences coming back each week for more. It can never dispense its wisdom in one bright flash; it measures out its truths with coffee spoons. This is why Jesus, for example, speaks largely in parables, short installments that are easy to revisit and that demand eternal interpretation. This is why the Buddha, when asked whether he was a man or a god, answered cryptically, “I am awake.” You can contemplate a rerun of this sentence time and again and still find a new there there.

But whereas Christianity and Islam and Buddhism are all constrained by the inherent demand to write around one central character, Judaism’s narrative logic is different. If you want to understand it, just watch The Simpsons.

There are many reasons for the animated show’s astonishing longevity—it is now the longest-running scripted show broadcast in prime time in American TV history—but none more prevalent than its peculiar storytelling logic, which is simultaneously meticulously detailed and formidably vague. We know, for example, the crazy cat lady’s name, age, and former occupation (Eleanor Abernathy, 40, corporate lawyer), but not the answer to a much more fundamental question like which state Springfield, the Simpsons’ hometown, is in.

It’s this kind of tension between the ephemeral and the exact that keeps us watching. And the show’s writers are well-aware of its existence. In one later episode, Mr. Burns asks who might this pesky employee, Homer Simpson, be. “He thwarted your campaign for governor,” his assistant, Smithers, responds. “You ran over his son, he saved the plant from meltdown, his wife painted you in the nude.” Burns shrugs his shoulders: “Doesn’t ring a bell,” he says. We laugh, and we congratulate the show for its edgy, postmodern reflexivity, but there’s something much deeper going on. If Burns did remember Homer and his antics, he would become, like the hapless Lord Grantham of Downton, no more than the overseer of an increasingly complex narrative that’s hard to follow and harder to believe. The joke works because it reminds us that the essence of television is progression, and that progression, to remain relevant, must move not in straight lines but in circles.

Such is the genius of The Simpsons, where a baby can remain a toddler for two decades and where major, life-defining moments are remembered by all but the characters who lived through them. Is the Hebrew Bible any different? About Abraham, for example, the book tells us nearly everything, except for why this one unremarkable man was singled out by God to begin with. A divine punishment visited on a wayward king in one chapter is forgotten by his son in the very next. The Bible has smiting and wars like The Simpsons has couch gags and vacations in strange locations—the fury of small details keeps us occupied, but the truly big questions are never directly addressed.

In religion and television alike, this gap creates a space for personal introspection. If you try to tell us an ironclad, linear story, we’ll revolt. We’ll ask ourselves, as Fenton does in his essay, if it really makes sense that someone as proper as Lady Edith might rat out her sister Mary for sleeping with the Turkish diplomat Pamuk. We’ll scrutinize each detail and roar at any discrepancy or unlikelihood. But tell us a loose tale, the kind that transcends logic and concentrates instead on some inherent spirit, the kind that knows that details are seasoning but never the stew, and we’ll stay tuned for 500 episodes—or five millennia.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.