I’d be hard pressed to tell you what a Kelly always does — routinely checks his spam filter? recycles? — but, thanks to “Game of Thrones,” I know that a Lannister always pays his debts.
I can barely keep all my cousins straight, but I am intimately familiar with the Crowes, the family of hapless backwoods criminals on the FX series “Justified.”
I don’t know how to poach an egg, but I’m pretty sure I could cook up some crystal meth, thanks to “Breaking Bad.”
Perhaps I watch too much television. Perhaps you do, too.
And who can blame us? There may be a lot of awful television these days — pretty much everything that falls under the “reality” heading — but there’s a lot of good TV, too. It’s certainly better than when I was a kid, when “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “Room 222” passed as high art.
It’s almost too much of a good thing. “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul” is currently airing. The third season of “House of Cards” just dropped. “Mad Men” is about to return. “Game of Thrones,” too.
There is so much quality narrative that I’m wondering whether I’ve reached peak attention span. How many more detailed, incremental shows can I keep straight? And I don’t even watch “The Americans” or “Homeland.”
I wonder whether we have arrived at a unique point in the history of human culture, when it has become so easy to be overwhelmed by the totally fictional exploits of totally fictional creations.
Not necessarily, said Bill Cohen, chairman of the English department at the University of Maryland.
“Certainly Greek mythology has an incredible pantheon of amazing fictional stories about gods and humans interacting,” he said. “And the Bible itself is full of great stories that captivate readers.”
Ah, the Bible. I’d forgotten about that. I don’t think the good book has ever been successfully adapted for television. If only HBO would take a stab: Idris Elba as Jesus, Matthew McConaughey as Judas, Michael Gambon as Joseph and Margo Martindale as the Virgin Mary.
Bill studies Victorian novels, literary edifices as sprawling as any premium cable miniseries. They were typically serialized in monthly or weekly magazines.
“It was a huge phenomenon,” Bill said. “People were going crazy to see what happened in the next installment.”
Charles Dickens was the master of the form, overseeing periodicals that printed his own work and that of other authors.
In addition to fiction, these magazines included nonfiction and poetry — “all appearing in these overlapping series,” Bill said. “So a reader who’s devoted might be following a half dozen different novels or stories simultaneously. It is in some ways analogous to your experience with television.”
The plots, Bill said, could be enormously complex. “There might be hundreds of characters. It’s hard work to keep that all straight in your mind.”
And yet Victorian audiences did.
The way the stories appeared — in finite chunks doled out on a regular schedule — required certain techniques, Bill said. “They came out over the course of 18 months. It’s a long time to follow a big, complicated story. The requirement of that form demanded that authors shape the story in different ways. Characters reappear regularly so readers don’t go too long without hearing from them. If you had to wait, you might forget them.”
Dickens worked right up to his deadlines, which meant audiences were reading his serialized novels pretty much as he was writing them. That could lead to some interesting interactions. One critic, George Lewes, objected strenuously when — spoiler alert! — a character in “Bleak House” died from spontaneous combustion. Lewes wrote to a newspaper to say that such a death was scientifically impossible.
“Dickens reacted very strongly,” Bill said. “In the next installment, one character includes references to real cases of spontaneous combustion.”
I don’t think I’ve seen spontaneous combustion in any of today’s TV narratives, but given how grim some of them can be, I might be wrong.
At some point, the characters from all of these TV shows are going to spill from their televisual enclosures. They’ll mingle around in my brain, creating potential crossover episodes in my subconscious:
Tonight on “House of Thrones,” Frank Underwood schemes with the Lady Melisandre to turn the Joint Chiefs of Staff into newts.
Meanwhile, on “The Walking Deadwood,” zombies take over a gold mining town in the Dakota Territory.
And on “Boardwalk Detective,” Woody Harrelson and Steve Buscemi team up to catch a serial killer in 1920s Atlantic City.
Or maybe I’ll just curl up with a good book.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.