- Therapy for the Novel
The Western Regional Psychoanalytic Association of America was impressed.
While many were awaiting the end of the world—or at least a big computer crash—they were opening the new millennium by presenting two of the writers of The Sopranos television series an award for their depiction of Tony Soprano's therapy sessions.
Not the end of the world, but a big step for psychoanalysts.
The following year Lorraine Bracco, who plays Dr. Jennifer Melfi in the series—mobster Soprano's therapist—was also given an award by the association.
When asked about it, Bracco reportedly said, "What, are they crazy? I'm so not Dr. Melfi."
While the association could probably have devoted an entire conference to just Bracco's response to her award, they were otherwise occupied basking in the glow brought to their profession by television.
The Sopranos, a television series by David Chase that ran from 1999 to 2007, gave psychoanalytic theory, a popular shot in the arm. Not only was the general public tuning in at record numbers each week to see what "America's favorite family" was up to, but so too were psychologists and psychiatrists. By the end of the third season in 2001, The Sopranos had become "must-see TV for psychologists and psychiatrists, especially the psychoanalytically inclined." Viewership for the final episode of the series was estimated to be almost 12 million viewers.
"It's the best representation of the work we do," said Philip Ringstrom, an analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, "that ever has been in film or on television."
Praise like this from professional analysts for the depiction of the therapeutic experience on The Sopranos was coupled with even higher praise for the public relations work the series was doing for psychoanalysis in the new millennium. Ringstrom and others would regularly comment after episodes on Slate—and even the American Psychological Association tacitly acknowledged the impact of the series, scheduling Ringstrom to give a presentation to a packed house on the therapeutic aspects of The Sopranos.
But the excitement about The Sopranos was not limited to just psychologists. Novelists from Norman Mailer to Gary Shteyngart have described this television series as a Great American Novel. And literary critics have compared Chase to Charles Dickens.
Seeking to cash in on the success of the series, the New York Times even asked Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly to revive in its Magazine, the serial novel—the closest narrative equivalent to eight years and 86 episodes of televised mob life.
The close of the series though did not end the conversation about the potential of serialized television for American novelistic greatness.
In the midst of one of the worst economic collapses in American history, another great work of serial television was born.
Breaking Bad aired its first episode on January 20, 2008. Its protagonist, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), was a former graduate student and high school teacher who turned to cooking and dealing meth to secure a solid financial future for his family. If the unconscious of Tony Soprano and its role in the sociopathic violence in which he participates is the driving-force of The Sopranos, then the post-Freudian schizophrenic neoliberal unconsciousness is the driving-machine of Breaking Bad. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are to Breaking Bad what Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan are to The Sopranos.
From 2008 to 2013, Breaking Bad had us following the raging schizophrenic lives of Walter White and Heisenberg, his alter-ego, as they voyaged deeper and deeper into the neoliberal abyss of America. His journey from indebted man to meth entrepreneur to death only furthered the case that a Great American Novel may be before you, but not on the shelf of a bookstore.
Similar cases might be made too for The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2008; Mad Men, which ran from 2007 to 2015; or even House of Cards, which began in 2013 but is now in production chaos because of one of its lead actor's alleged history of sexual harassment. In fact, David Simon, creator of...