This was from an academic book about Buffy but most of it also applies to all the other TV shows we love like Doctor Who and Supernatural and Sherlock and Community etc (just interchange ‘Buffy’ with ‘show name’ and almost all of these still apply), so I’m posting excerpts here cos I think you guys might find it interesting:
The fact- television as created by committee- is one of the reasons some people doubt that television can be art. I want to talk about those doubts…
… Witches, ghosts, spells— what kind of stuff is that for a story? Still, for some reason, people keep studying Shakespeare— Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Spontaneous combustion, mysterious doppelgangers, long-lost relatives— how believable are they? Yet people keep reading Dickens— Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickleby. Buffy suffers from prejudice related both to its medium, television, and its genre, fantasy. There are many fine defenses of fantasy, one of my favorites being Ursula K. Le Guin’s… She reminds us that “Fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it’s true.”— and that can be said of Buffy. And as for the medium- as a teacher of literature, I can see Buffy as part of a long cultural stream. Though I recognize and wish to speak of the special nature of television, I see far more similarities than differences between Buffy and earlier fictions.
The similarities include their early reception. A fictional form which is popular is often not respected for quite some time. Elizabethan drama had to fight for serious consideration. Non-dramatic poetry was considered the higher art form in that period. Similarly, when Dickens published his novels in serialized “shilling numbers”, they were widely enjoyed but condescended to. Yet now we consider the nineteenth century the great age of the novel. Yet consider how many bad Elizabethan plays and Victorian novels must not have been passed down to us. The form of art most suited to an age will produce both its best work and its most work- so, by statistical likelihood, many bad works will be produced in that form. This is as true for nineteenth-century novels as for prime-time television. Even great work is not always immediately appreciated… Percy Shelly wrote the anonymous preface to his wife Mary’s Frankenstein, trying to argue that the book would not have the same ill-effects as most novel-reading: parents in that day and age wanted to keep their children away from novel-reading the way parents today want to keep their children away from too much time with the television.
It seems that the more one knows about the history of literature, the less reason one would have for excluding television from serious consideration. It is another form of drama and a direct descendant from Elizabethan theater. It also shares qualities of the serialized novel: novel would often come out over the course of a year and a half in weekly or monthly installments. Of course the academy moves slowly: in the nineteenth century, Harvard University did not allow American literature to be taught, so it should not perhaps surprise us that television has not been embraced more quickly in more places.
… Part of the occasional snobbery of aesthetic evaluation has to do with the idea of the control of the creator, the single mind unifying the work of art. [But] when I have thought of the art of a television series, I have thought of the master builder of a cathedral and his workers: a cathedral is a creation which is certainly accepted as art, but which was worked on by many differing people over many years.
… Television is temporally unique as an art. Great Expectations, like Buffy, came out once a week. But even his characters did not have as long a relationship with their audience as a long-running series such as Buffy… The use of time is more similar for the serial novelist and the television creator than most people realize, too. Dickens wrote with long arcs in mind, but sometimes followed where the characters led… Part of what is necessary for television art is the ability to balance the long narrative plan with the ability to respond to sudden opportunities or stresses, whether they be internal (e.g. wanting more of a popular minor character) or external (an actor moving on to movies)…
… It seems to me that television has special potential for the long term development of such [broad themes and] patterns… but it also seems to me that any work worthy of the term art must invite close scrutiny; a reader will want to dwell in the details. I will venture this: to be most likely to endure as art, a television series must take advantage of both its possibilities for long-term construction and produce individually powerful episodes.
Television can be art, and deserves to be so studied. It is a work of literature, of language; it is a work of visual art (composition, framing, color); it is a work of music and sound. It is a work of television. The depth of the characters, the truth of the stories, the profundity of the themes, and their precise incarnation in language, sound and image- all of these matter. Last and first of all, [television shows] matter for the same reason that all art maters- because it shows us the best of what it means to be human. The characters do so within the show, and the makers do so with the show.