I got caught in a conversation this week about the increasing amount of back-turning on traditional cinema in favour of well-constructed television. Good TV isn’t a new thing – shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, West Wing, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and more recently House of Cards and hell even Girls have each either pushed a boundary or two, or cemented the art of television as a serious creative medium. Of all the disciplines that go into producing this stuff, the bar raised the highest since the crappy sitcoms of the 80s is arguably the writing. Snappy, intelligent dialog, multiple seasons planned out with meticulous care, characters three dimensional and/or well-researched (certainly a big part of the reason so many big name actors have answered the small-screen’s siren call).

It’s that writing part which I’m getting at. Whenever I’ve ended up in discussions about favourite (intelligent) television shows, it always comes back to the characters or the story or the dialog or the way people relate to these manufactured worlds on such a deep, emotional level. Who hasn’t slammed through entire seasons of their old fave on a rainy weekend, or marathoned multiples? Found themselves committing eight or twelve or twenty or fifty hours to the cause? 

During one of these recent discussions, throwing awesome programme after awesome programme into the ring and discussing the various merits of the writing and characterisation, I felt a sudden stab : why is it so hard to get (most) people as thirsty and engaged in the same way regarding books? And moreso, as television becomes more and more sophisticated, the layers piled on, much more care taken with the planning and writing of a series, aren’t we sharing (and raving about) an intellectual experience that is deliberately heading in the same direction and complexity of good literature? And as viewers, so many of us choosing this meatier, chewier programming – aren’t we just crying out for the sort of brain-workout that books have and always will do better? When someone says to me “I don’t read much”, but then watches hour after hour of meaty television, saying things like “I wish there were more shows just like it” or “it’s totally the smartest show on tv”, aren’t they just gagging for a good book?

When I pose the questions, the common excuse is that of time. Long-form takes too long. Not enough hours in the day. I call bollocks to that. Slamming an entire series of Game Of Thrones – one series covering as much ground as one book, with all the same punch but skimpier on the depth and details – would take me about the same time to read as it would to watch. Even a poor reader could slam through a chapter or two in the time it would take to view a single episode. “Too expensive” is another; buying a book is cheaper than buying a season on DVD, and a public library is cheaper than a Netflix subscription. For the pirates, eBooks are just as free as pirated tv shows, take much less time to download, and can be emailed to your buddies instead of lumbered around on drives. 

Of course the mediums are vastly different, and the benefits of television can’t be ignored – slightly more passive, you can “switch off”, and new material is often more regularly at hand than new books (i.e. you switch the tv on, the new shows are there ready to go, as opposed to a premeditated trip to the library or bookshop, or an online shopping experience – all more energetic than mindless-passive). I wouldn’t try to argue against these things if that’s what drives your choices, as particularly the switch-off, I’m totally down with. Nor would I argue against the teleplay itself as being a completely valid art form in it’s own right, and that the dramatic/cinematic/televisual arts can be just as stimulating and satisfying as your nightly entertainment without bringing literature into it at all.

But what I will stick with is that when many people will actively praise the complexity of a show’s writing, characters, story arcs and high level of intelligence, but then not generally read a lot of books, it’s hard to not see this as a total /facepalm. Good literature does do this stuff better. Particularly in series-long story arcs, a book will take up less of your time, offer more detailed characters, provide interior monologue without relying on an actor to bring out those nuances unspoken (or potentially not, if they suck), and give you a far richer amount of the details and layers than you can squish into a few hours of television. You see it all the time in adaptations, especially if you’ve read the book first. 

And on that thought, it’s hard not to jump one step further: if modern television has progressively been getting closer to the intelligence level and complexity of good fiction, where does that path end? Perhaps the rising popularity of the Audio Book format answers this? While being more expensive than both tv and paper or e-books, it does afford (those who can tolerate the slower-than-thought pace of spoken word) the same passive experience television offers, while at the same time giving your brain the same higher-level workout as a good book.

I don’t understand why books so often stay on the shelf, why, in this age of highly-intelligent programming, people still think that reading requires you to be more switched-on than your average smart-show, that it’s less of an unwind to read when you get home from work. Really? Sorkin’s writing for example…. can you really stay switched off with that dialogue? And as for passive, isn’t watching an extremely tense episode of, say, a silent, knifey stand-off in a basement meth-lab where barely no words are spoken for 40 minutes but the tension is thick you’re nearly pissing your pants…. you call that added stress in your day “passive”? I’m not saying books are smarter, less intense, or any of that, but I’m just saying I could make the same excuses about most of the first-rate shows out there as its viewers often accuse of books.

Each to their own, but if you do like the chunky stuff, try a bit of balance. Trust me – if you haven’t picked up a book at all this week but you’re currently counting down the weeks for your favourite show to come back from the mid-season break (filling the hours you normally would with repeats, classic series-slamming) then you’re kinda missing out…

Now: where’s that remote….