Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland: As good as novels?

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Claire Danes
Claire Danes poses with the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for Homeland in the press room at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2013.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Long-form episodic television -- think Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey and Homeland, to name a few -- is challenging Hollywood features for storytelling quality and cultural dominance, argues Thomas Doherty in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Doherty writes,

Long top dog in the media hierarchy, the Hollywood feature film--the star-studded best in show that garnered the respectful monographs, the critical cachet, and a secure place on the university curriculum--is being challenged by the lure of long-form, episodic television. Let's call the breed Arc TV, a moniker that underscores the dramatic curvature of the finely crafted, adult-minded serials built around arcs of interconnected action unfolding over the life span of the series. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones--the highest-profile entrees in a gourmet menu of premium programming--are where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl. Fess up: Are you more jazzed about the release of the new Abraham Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg or the season premiere of Homeland (September 30, 10 p.m., on Showtime)? The lineup hasn't quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.

Doherty goes so far as suggesting that some television series' are better than novels.

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

Alissa Quart recently agreed in a New York Times op-ed.

For many among today's intelligentsia, television serials like "Homeland," "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" with their continuing fables of Alicia Florrick and Walter White, Don Draper and Carrie Mathison, occupy the cultural position of the Dickens tales that were famously doled out in monthly installments. (Except that spoilers are possible now in a way they were not in the age of Pip or Little Nell.) Narrative shows have become the entertainment of choice.

Quart and Doherty join The Daily Circuit to discuss television's ascendancy.