Great books have been written on television. David Thomson’s Television: A biography is not among them. This surprises me, because Thomson is one of America’s most lauded film critics. To have his thoughts on television over the sweep of its history, viewed through his decades of experience, seemed a boon to me – a critic born in 1982. But Television judges its subject too harshly in a study that often feels painfully dated.
Taking on television as a whole is an admirably vast job. The term ‘television’ alone encompasses an array of meaning, technologies, and history: the broadcast of a coronation, 1960s ads, game shows, tonight’s Netflix comedy. The term’s meaning has evolved, as economic and technological change shift its methods of consumption, artistic quality, and cultural significance. Tackling ‘television’, then, requires structural and critical rigour.
Thomson abdicates from this in the introduction: ‘how does one tell “the story” of the television era? … [T]he more I thought about that (and tried to find a structure), the more I felt confounded.’ It shows. Arguing (speciously) that he would have to cover everything ever made to do it properly, Thomson declines a linear history and instead divides the book into the ‘Medium’ and its ‘Messages’.
That could have worked, had his study of the ‘Medium’ clearly established the parameters of ‘television’: guiding the reader through various golden eras that he name-checks, the technologies that pushed television from fuzzy screens to cultural dominance, the meanings of ‘network’, ‘cable’, ‘streaming’, and why that difference matters. There are bits of this, scattered through a porridgy structure that creates confusion as Thomson topic-shifts and digresses into pop-philosophising better suited to the tail-end of a boozy dinner. His self-consciousness is telling: ‘I hope this is not too roundabout’; this ‘may seem foolish or impossibly belated’; ‘Maybe this theory seems vague.’ Yep.
Thomson’s lack of precision in using ‘television’ underpins the book’s dated feel. He hands down axioms possibly correct fifteen years ago but wrong today. ‘Television is not for attention.’ Really? What about complex serialised drama like The Wire? ‘Television seldom strays far from likeable people’ – except for the past decade and a half of anti-heroes. Advertisements ‘are the staple programming of television and still the formative element on our diverse screens’. Not on Netflix, Amazon, or HBO. Television ‘has always favored the sly, hip presentation of self, as opposed to the studious playing of Great Roles. Heavy-duty acting can look…silly on television.’ James Gandolfini in The Sopranos, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife – they weren’t playing Great Roles?
Television’s datedness also comes through in certain attitudes. It is wrong to call Thomson sexist: he advocates fiercely for women on screen. But I could hear my eyes roll when I read: ‘There have been women newscasters and talk-show anchors, but it’s hard to put them in the company of Dick Clark, Merv Griffin, or Mr. Rogers. Or is that just a stuffy male point of view?’ (Yes). After lightly praising Ellen DeGeneres – recipient of thirty-five Emmys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom – he dismisses her because, unlike the male hosts, ‘she has refused magic or mystery’. Whatever that means. While rightly criticising television for ‘putting women to a stricter and sexist test’ about appearance, he unironically writes of a Fox sports reporter: ‘[Erin] Andrews does a breathless, subcompetent job, but she is attractive in the way of twenty or thirty years ago … Television has many women commentators on male sports events now, some as good as any reporters.’ And so on.
The book improves as Thomson studies television’s ‘Message’ by genre: the news, documentary, comedy, police procedurals. He writes vividly about live events like the Kennedy assassination, offers valuable contexts to older shows like I Love Lucy. Yet ‘Long Form’ – the revolutionary, HBO-era of artistic drama – gets seventeen pages in a 412-page book that happily digresses into imagined television episodes, block-quoted internet comments, and recaps of ads. Nearly a third of the section concerns a little-known network show, American Crime, leaving cable and streaming’s medium-shaping achievements woefully underdone. Here is Thomson on the most ambitious television production in history: ‘Then there is Game of Thrones (2011–), based on the appeal of medieval costume and warfare.’ Thomson admits that ‘I feel guilty over series I have not included here – or not seen properly’; there are, he self-justifies, ‘too many long-forms to keep up with’. Which would be fine, if he was an ordinary viewer. But he’s not. Television claims the currency and authority of being the medium’s ‘biography’, yet too often Thomson shrugs off the critical responsibilities of that role. Crucially, he seems to have missed many of this century’s defining achievements, and to lack textured appreciation of how these have changed and heightened the form.
This leads to an unjustly bleak judgement: that ‘television – that foolish, wasteful, inept medium’ makes us lesser, that ‘our most ardent and honorable hopes for meaning may be eclipsed by the passive persistence of the thing itself’, that it is a ‘harbinger’ of technological doom that ‘witness[es] decline, entropy, and even a narrowing of human aspiration’. ‘Instead of watching stories that might be art,’ he says, ‘I feel we’re witnessing a world past caring.’ Rot.
Tellingly, Thomson concludes with Friends, which ended in 2004 and forms a natural closing point for twentieth-century television. I could understand his grim perspective had Television been printed in that year – it certainly reads that way. But not in 2017, when television’s artistic promise seems boundless.