This is what should be on a TV Studies degree curriculum

A swift jog through past the TV shows that laid the bedrock for the programmes we're enjoying today.

I am the beneficiary of a good university education. I studied journalism – a long ago time when we believed we could save print media. Now, we know we’re doomed but the skills and knowledge I picked up in those three years – shorthand, media law, how government and politics work, radio and TV editing – have held me in good stead in this brave new world.

So let’s turn that logic to a possible TV studies degree. What television shows of the past 10-15 years would we include in the curriculum? What would we consider utterly indispensable to understanding modern telly? What laid the foundations for the telly landscape of today? What is worth studying for clues on how to do it, or how not to?

The list below is entirely subjective and not at all exhaustive, and crucially, the shows listed are not flawless: they all have issues around racism and representation, and the treatment of women. But they also planted the seeds of whatever TV goodness we are reaping today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

Deadwood. On first look, this HBO series starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian “Lovejoy” McShane looked like worthy American drama: real “how the west was won” stuff. But then it slowly becomes something altogether more complex, with two amazing men at its centre: one an opportunist in the best (and worst) way; the other a principled, rigid man who falls and cannot forgive himself. Alongside their stories are smaller, less showy ones, urgently told, with a cast and direction that is basically flawless. Without Deadwood, there would be no Game of Thrones and no Justified, and how much poorer would we be for that?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is television and television is Buffy. It’s that simple. Every show that came after had a little Buffy Summers sprinkled on it. Iconic episodes such as “Hush”(where there are only 17 minutes of dialogue in a 44-minute show), and the gut-wrenching “The Body” (where Buffy discovers her mother, dead from a brain aneurysm, on the sofa) are as good as any television show has a right to be. It had season-long storytelling arcs, complex heroes to root for, villains to despise but understand, tricky pairings and truly high stakes (the end of the world, several times). Ten years after it ended, it’s still influencing telly. Every zippy pop-culture reference in Happy Endingshas some DNA from Buffy; and Teen Wolf, Fringe, The Vampire Diaries and so many more series owe it a huge debt.

State of Play. The TV version, not the Russell Crowe film. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since this was on. A Paul Abbott script and acting masterclasses from James McAvoy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald and David Morrissey created a memorable BBC drama. Its impact can be seen in everything from The Shadow Line to Spooks (after series one) to the recently reimagined House of Cards, Hunted, and Scandal.

The Office. Whatever he has become in the years since his defining sitcom, Ricky Gervais invented one of the great television characters in David Brent.

This was human telly, cruel and funny and tender, with no laugh track to guide you. A properly influential programme, as evidenced by its many, disparate offspring: Parks and Recreation, Party Down, Armando Iannucci’s Veep, and its own US version, starring Steve Carell.

Sex and the City. It has become fashionable to call SATC vapid, dated and just plain silly. This is largely, I think, down to the two movies it spawned, although I will loudly and passionately defend the first of them with my dying breath.

But it bears repeating that the TV series succeeded in every way that it set out to do: it was a damn fine comedy, bold and often unflinching, unafraid of criticism, and crucially, it captured the zeitgeist. Girls is what it is because of SATC, as is Entourage, and any number of recent comedies.

The Wire. You knew this was coming? If you still haven’t watched it – why? Every small-screen, long-form narrative show of the past decade is a descendant of this, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Homeland to The Killing. To say The Wire is great is only a cliché because it’s true.

Every show that came after had a little Buffy Summers sprinkled on it.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism