Last week Ross Douthat posted a comparison of The Sopranos and The Wire. He sees the two shows in terms of psychology v. sociology, the former being the more insightful because it presents flesh and blood human beings while the latter reduces its characters to their surrounding culture in order to critique it.
He is rehashing an argument he made when comparing Mad Men’s Don Draper to Breaking Bad’s Walter White: White is the more interesting character because his motives are complex while Draper’s soul appears flat because Mad Men is first and foremost a show about 1960’s America.
Switching genres, Tom Wolfe famously argued the death of the novel is upon us because novelists since the 1960’s have retreated from realism. His essay ”Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” critiques the absurdist novels of Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Wolfe’s call was for contemporary writers to create ‘social novels’ in the tradition of Charles Dickens: The novelist should report on the cultural movements of his time.
What would Wolfe think of psychological novels like Dostoevsky’s? Does his call for more reporter-novelists apply to television’s storytellers as well? More importantly, aren’t the really great books timeless because they are not primarily about a particular time? And don’t they do that by presenting us with a person so particular, so real, it encourages us to reflect on what motivations all human beings share or don’t share in common?