If Modern TV Critics Reviewed The Great Gatsby

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 Books / Writing


The Great Gatsby
“Chapter 8”

Well, we finally got the flashback we wanted—or thought we wanted—as well as a rather pedestrian double homicide that we weren’t even allowed to witness. (Those of you who predicted in last week’s comments that we’d get the rumored Gatsby death tonight can congratulate yourselves; I thought Fitzgerald would be canny enough to save that for the climax, but obviously I was wrong).

As The Great Gatsby winds up—or winds down—who among us isn’t feeling a massive sense of anticlimax? What started out as so much fun has become a chore. I remember my review of Chapter 3, in which I wrote, “The party scenes alone make this one of the best stories ever: the ‘Owl Eyed Man;’ the car with the missing wheel—what a virtuostic performance!” Revisiting that review now, I’m saddened by the optimism I felt back then. That mysterious library interloper (Who was he? Where did he come from?) never returned, and the entire dazzling sequence (barring any unlikely surprises next week) turned out to be the only one of its kind. (EDIT: Commenters remind me of the dreary affair in Chapter 6—technically, a Gatsby party—but we can agree that was merely a background for the Buchanan’s tiresome bickering; all the magic was gone.)

Last week, I complained about the leaden pacing (somebody needs to inform Fitzgerald that one laborious description of the drive from Long Island to Manhattan, however prettily rendered, is quite enough) which, despite the long-overdue Tom/Gatsby hotel confrontation, ended up dwelling endlessly on a dull police investigation (after a fatal crash we don’t even get to watch) and a total lack of dramatic release for Nick, Gatsby and the Buchanans, who go their separate ways without resolving anything. In Chapter 8, the disappointments continue. (Are we really never going to see Jordan Baker again?) Instead of dramatic resolution, a dull-as-dirt flashback story and, later in the chapter, a long discussion between, of all people, Tom Buchanan and Wilson the mechanic. With only one more chapter to go, can we possibly have time for this? Somebody needs to tell F. Scott that nobody cares about these ancilary characters—with so little time left, we want more Gatsby and Daisy!

What was originally a glorious paen to a vanished age of hedonism—with so much juicy foreshadowing of dark horrors to come—has become, in the end, just another “bro” story. As Nick patiently listened through Gatsby’s forlorn, lengthy narrative, I kept wanting him to speed the man along, to get us to the good stuff (and is anyone else as sick of “old sport” as I am, at this point?)—but no; we linger over every wartime cliché, every reference to someone named Dan Cody (Who? I’m told in comments I’m overlooking stray lines from Chapter 7—I must have missed those). It’s all too little, too late…and then, literally on the chapter’s last page, the two murders, presented as anticlimactically as possible (it’s not even clear what happened). All I can say is, what a disappointment! We’ll see what happens next week, but with just one chapter to wrap this thing up and try to make a satisfying ending (with a dead title character!) or even, dare we hope, a fiendishly clever twist, I’m afraid my hopes aren’t up: the chances of Fitzgerald overcoming his losing streak—everyone remembers the profoundly disappointing finales of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned—are dim at best. It’s a shame; The Great Gatsby started strong but it’s turned into a serious bummer.

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As television changes, TV criticism struggles to keep up. Yes, writers like Alan Sepinwall are raising the level of discourse, adopting techniques from established academic disciplines of cinema and literature criticism and theory. But there are formal problems, as there were a century ago when movies were new—nobody knew how to write about them, either, until the “auteur theory” days of James Agee and Francois Truffaut.

For decades, television was artistically limited by broadcast technology: until the Betamax, there was no way to ensure that your audience would even see all of your episodes. (Even the journeyman freelance writers, hired to do a Columbo or a Star Trek, would have no way of familiarizing themselves with the shows they’d missed.) So the stories were episodic, not serial; the parts could be viewed in any order, since each hour of drama returned the scenario to a fixed tabula rasa. This changed in the early 1980s with Dallas and the other “prime-time soaps” like Stephen Bochco’s revolutionary Hill Street Blues, which combined existing daytime-drama serialization techniques with high-toned dramatic content.

But criticism still worked the old way: at that decade’s end, when Hill Street co-creator Mark Frost worked with David Lynch to invent Twin Peaks—arguably the Citizen Kane of modern television—there was only a single review (of the two-hour pilot) in each newspaper and magazine. As in the old days of TV Guide, they told us what to expect based on the premiere, and quit—as we watched each week, and the Lynch/Frost masterpiece got stranger and more brilliant, we viewers were on our own (except, ironically, for Soap Opera Digest, the only periodical to keep up).

Along with affordable DVD sets (which replaced “the episode” with “the season” as television’s default storytelling unit), the internet eventually transformed television through streaming and piracy—and it changed criticism, too: even in the early 1990s, when Bochco was making NYPD Blue, a young Alan Sepinwall was posting weekly summary/reviews on a BBS board that got circulated by email. Today, just as the entire history of television is there for the asking Netflix and YouTube, so every episode of every series, old and new, is treated with dozens or hundreds of web pages’ worth of commentary.

But in the meantime television has evolved again. Shows like True Detective and Mad Men are the first wave of a subtler, more refined, vastly more sophisticated narrative art form that inherits the formal traditions, aesthetic sweep and philosophical depth of the novel far more easily than cinema ever did or ever could. Entire series are now planned from the outset (“this is a story that began with its ending in mind,” estabilshed novelist Nik Pizzolatto said of his brilliant True Detective, for which he wrote every episode), truncated not by “the networks”’ arbitrary, bottom line-based “cancellations” (as in the old days) but by carefully worked-out deals that let producer/writers like Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner meticulously plan out their storytelling in advance.

Granada Television’s celebrated early-1980s renditions of Brideshead Revisited and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy notwithstanding, novelistic material has rarely gotten this kind of long-form cinematic treatment, and the depth and artistry of the results—as, for example, Weiner’s baroque, exhausively-researched 1960s unfold through a photographic and theatrical recreation far more ambitious than even Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz—reveal the inadequacy of contemporary criticism (it’s like reading a great F. Scott Fitzgerald novel chapter by chapter in a class who’s teacher hasn’t read it either). It’s unclear if anything can be done about this—Netflix, at least, has taken to releasing its new shows (Daredevil and Grace and Frankie) all at once, obviously in order to forestall the problems of piecemeal viewing.

It’s not that the critics aren’t smart, or well-intentioned. The problem is more fundamental: as the newest shows in today’s “television Renaissance” (like Mad Men and True Detective) reach higher and higher levels of literary sophistication (inheriting novelistic formal traditions to a degree that far surpasses what’s possible in theatrical cinema), week-by-week reviewing becomes increasingly inadequate—the first-time viewer, no matter how smart, is functionally incapable of the necessary aesthetic and philosophical insight. You can’t understand Gatsby until you’ve read it all, and its meaning and purpose has been systematically assessed; the same is true of Mad Men. It’s not that critics need to hold off until the show (or the season) is over—it’s that they need to approach their work in light of these new shows’ literary sophistication, and adjust their expectations and analysis accordingly. If “the streaming/cable show” truly is the first great new narrative art form of the century, it won’t be long before the critical establishment adapts and matures.