Monday, July 23, 2012

Interview with Greg Metcalf, Author of The DVD Novel: How the Way We Watch Television Changed the Television We Watch

What prompted you to write The DVD Novel?

While I didn’t realize it at the time, the book probably started when Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999) and NYPD Blue (1993-2005) were on the air. Both were great shows but NYPD Blue was great television. Homicide was great “something else.” At the time I settled for Homicide being filmmaking on television, but I knew that wasn’t the answer.

Then The Wire came along in 2002, and everyone was saying it was the greatest show on television, but it didn’t act like a television show. Almost everyone I knew who was watching it was watching it on DVD. And that reminded me of when the seven-hour British television show The Singing Detective showed up in the United States because critics tried to explain that it was great but it wasn’t really television.

So it became a question of television that wasn’t “television.” And I looked around and couldn’t find anything being written about that.

What was the highlight of your research. What discovery surprised you the most?

It was a constant stream of surprises. Once I started looking into it, I was continually finding clear examples of how drastically television had changed that no one seemed to notice. Realizing how DVD sets had changed our relationship with television. Seeing how different a show actually was if you watched it once a week versus binge-viewing it all in one day. Noticing how the changes in television repeated the changes comic books had gone through in becoming graphic novels. Recognizing the different network tactics to balance episodic stories with a season-long arc, like mixing genres and using comedy. Noticing how that changed comedy and how the cable situation comedies had moved beyond dramedy to become something else: attitudinal comedies.

The most surprising discovery—which happened repeatedly—was just seeing how much television changes when a show exists forever in series on DVD sets. Suddenly an ephemeral, unchanging narrative form has the longform range to be able to create what we think of as literature.

The DVD Novel
 How the Way We Watch Television Changed the Television We Watch

How have people reacted to your book/the ideas you set forth?

The most common response has been “Why didn’t this book already exist?” which I try not to take as “Why couldn’t somebody else have written this?” There’s been surprise that no one had put all of this together before and made these connections because, once you see them, they seem pretty obvious. Along with that, there has been appreciation for the wide range of examples, ideas, and references along the way. Apparently, it is the first book to connect the different pieces and explain how we got to the sort of television we have today.

Most readers have also ended up with a list of television series they now want to find on DVD, or want to go back and watch shows again now that they have a new way of thinking about them.

Academics have been surprised that I was able to get the ideas and theoretical issues across while still writing it in my conversational, occassionally snarky, voice rather than having to force it into a drier academic sort of writing.

How did your research change your outlook on this subject?

It made me appreciate just how much is possible in longform television, from the deceptively lightweight entertainments of House and Gilmore Girls or the Marlovian detective novels of Veronica Mars and Terriers, the Shakespearean Breaking Bad or Slings & Arrows, to the Chekovian Sopranos, the Greek Tragedy of The Wire, or a magical realist philosophical novel like John from Cincinnati. In a strange way it also led me to a new appreciation of series that do a single, freestanding episode, like the sick humor of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Louis CK’s Louie which is completely remodelling that traditional form.

What’s next for you?

I’m most interested in areas where what we “know” about something keeps us from seeing what is actually there. The next long writing project will be whichever of three longterm projects seems ready when I sit down:

One is a continuation of The DVD Novel, working from about a hundred pages that had to be cut from the book for length that deal with how the relationship between film and television has changed because of DVDs, but also specifically how the idea of film has changed because of DVDs and the influence graphic novels and video games.

The second is a continuing project on popular fictional characters that take on a life of their own outside of the stories that spawned them through adaptation, translation, sequelization, fan fiction, and critical analysis. I’ve spent years wallowing in  the existence of characters in folklore and religion and that ends up providing an interesting angle of approach to the legal, commercial, literary, and technological issues of contemporary fictional characters.

And the third is a rereading of the work of the Mary Cassatt, a 19th century unmarried Impressionist who painted a lot of babies and their mothers. I continue to be intigued by the paradox in how people view her work: different groups at different times have heroicized her for what she symbolized, but this has kept people from actually seeing the depth of meaning in her art. I’ve been told I analyze her prints and paintings as if they were films. I’ve never been able to tell if that was a compliment or a criticism.

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