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Books vs. TV

I am pretty excited about HBO’s new series, Tremé. I still haven’t actually seen it yet, but I feel like I have, almost.

It premiered Friday night, and I had a couple invites to see it in some venues that would have been fun. (Like the Charbonnet Funeral Home in Tremé. That would have been a trip.) But the time-slot was late, and there’s no way I was going to keep my girl up past her bedtime. So that meant either Xy or I could see it while the other person stayed home and played the responsible adult.

I got stuck being the responsible one.

Since we don’t subscribe to cable television, I couldn’t watch the show, but I did “tune in” to Twitter where I watched a veritable deluge of commentary pouring forth — thousands of tweets, far too many to read in real time. I’d say comments were 90% positive, but it is hardly a scientific sample.

In the other 10%, one remark in particular caught my eye, from local author and luminary Poppy Z. Brite:

Read a Book

As noted, I don’t quite share her perspective — but I respect it. And in fact I think it provides the perfect springboard for a workshop I’m doing next week on Goodreads.

Different media have different affordances. Despite the convergence exemplified by technologies like the World Wide Web, there are still some relevant distinctions to be made. You can’t beat television for live coverage of a sporting event, for example; I’d argue that’s the ultimate application of that medium. You just can’t watch the game on a book.

As for dramatic narrative? That’s one reason Tremé is interesting to me, as it seems to be a best-case scenario. It’s not an adaptation of a book but a dramatic narrative straight-up written for television, involving lots of very talented people who have a great track record. If it’s anywhere near as good as The Wire I’m sure I’ll love it.

However, I still think theater and cinema and books are better venues for dramatic narrative. Television can aspire to the same level of quality as the best of those, but can it do anything unique? Is there anything a TV series can do that a film or a book can’t do? I don’t think so — beyond perhaps a heightened sense of social immediacy.

And that’s where Goodreads comes in. It adds that dimension of social immediacy to the reading of books. Or you can just use it to keep track of what you’ve read and what you want to read. I think it’s fairly handy, and of course, I’m on there so feel free to add me as a friend.

I’m curious to know what others think about dramatic narrative on the small screen. Is there anything a TV series can do that a film or a book can’t do better?

Published inBooks & ReadingGeekyNew OrleansNews & MediaRadio & TV


  1. [ this is jerry ] [ this is jerry ]

    “When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” What I mean to say is, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying varying forms of entertainment.

    TV is good at telling serial narratives that need a music as a backdrop. Treme might be the perfect example of this.

  2. Sean Sean

    Certainly no one really needs to come to defense of tv, but with a book you can’t share an immediate response or reaction with another person. It’s another level of interaction–even if its a silent one. I hadn’t regularly watched any tv programs for years and canceled our cable. When I found BSG and Dexter online I changed my tune. I’d echo what Jerry said about the serial narrative style that’s evolving. There is a more captive audience now that there is a sense that you can’t just jump in the middle of a story by skipping an episode. I don’t have cable, so unless its available online or netflix I guess I’ll be missing Tremé.

  3. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. Tuning in to a show like ‘Treme’ is not the same thing as watching ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ so comments like Poppy’s seem a little strange. She’s a writer (and a damn good one, I think) so maybe her perspective is a little biased, maybe?

    As for TV vs book, in this case, what about the music? When you watch the show you’ll see what a HUGE part that music played–so much more than a soundtrack. I’ve read descriptions of second lines and whatnot but I don’t think you can replicate the actual experience with the written word.

  4. David David

    All in all, I loved the Treme, though I do hope they dial back the local “flava” in the dialog a bit, maybe 10%. New Orleanians do consume music and food from elsewhere, though you wouldn’t guess that from the first episode. (Granted, immediately after Katrina, we were appreciating and celebrating all things local.)

  5. I appreciate these comments.

    It has been brought to my attention that the show is actually spelled Treme without the acute accent, even though that’s the preferred spelling for Tremé the neighborhood. What’s up with that?

  6. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the effect of watching a show like this en masse. Cade and I caught it at the Mother-in-Law Lounge and that experience…well, I’m certain it was different not just from the experience of reading, which is essentially and necessarily solitary, but also from the act of watching a show in your own home. It really felt like a collective endeavor–not passive consumption, which to me is always the danger of television.

  7. toneknee toneknee

    The hipster DJ character I totally disliked. His overacting was quite antithetical for a supposed WWOZ DJ. Kermit was his natural self and Clarke Peters is always class act as I remember from The Wire. The local “flava” as David describes seemed fresh coming from the locals. As a first episode it can be excused. As for John Goodman, what can I say, perhaps dialing back on the anger is needed here, but since this is supposedly just months after Katrina then this too can be excused. Overall still too early to tell. Not loving it just yet. Hope it doesn’t devolve into a K-Ville. I trust David Simon’s better judgment for that.

  8. [ this is jerry ] [ this is jerry ]

    > As for John Goodman, what can I say, perhaps dialing back on the anger is needed here,
    The wife of the person he’s portraying said that her husband was actually *more* angry.

  9. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    This last episode features the Goofy Whiteboy (I wonder if his Part on the Script
    is actually
    titled that) losing his radio job for allowing the voodoo chicken-slaying in the studio….yuk, yuk….then, on the way out of the office with his box of belongings, whiteboy points to the smear of chicken-blood on the wall and says
    not covering over this blood because it a power thing–they should
    leave it just for the “Gris-Gris” (sp?)….then, whiteboy is
    getting a job at the hotel desk in “The Quarter” where he gets in trouble for
    sending-with-a-whisper some young Wisconsin church-aid-volunteers
    to go party in the dreaded Seventh Ward.
    Lots of propaganda manipulation here folks.
    I’d move Northwest if I were You….

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