How to Watch Television
Jason Mittell, Ethan Thompson
(New York University Press)
US: Aug 2013
If you had told anyone 50 years ago that one day television programs would require watching guidebooks and inspire academic papers, they would have probably laughed in your face. Such is the way in which film and television were both originally received by mass audiences; as popular, even vulgar entertainment that would help pass the time without ever achieving any transcendence.
Since it came first, film underwent a transition from mass entertainment to being the ultimate kind of human artform; one which, combined, juxtaposed and merged all the other forms of art into a single entity. Television, perhaps because of its size and the fact that it’s always been so accessible, was relegated as being film’s slightly dumber sibling, and television criticism hasn’t been taken seriously for a very long time.
We live in a time when the ways in which films and television reach us and are consumed by us have nothing to do with what movies did for audiences in the ‘20s, or what television achieved during the ‘50s (the “golden era” of TV). The line that divides these mediums has become so narrow and permeable that we sometimes have to wonder if movies should still be called “moving pictures” if they’re not being projected from celluloid, and we have to wonder if television programs created for the internet, which don’t need to “air” on networks at specific times, have anything to do with the now seemingly alien idea of having an entire household sitting down together to watch a show.
For all the cries of “movies are dead” and “television is the new cinema”, the one true thing is that options for viewers have become so varied, the writing has (in some cases) become so elevated, and the influence of pop culture so large, that scholars have been forced to take television seriously and examine it not as mere entertainment, but as a form of high art. Shows like The Sopranos or The Wire, for example, have been compared to Dickensian or Dostoyevskian tales, if only for their epic elements, the number of characters they create and the themes that are explored in them.
Nowadays, hearing someone say they “don’t watch TV” means that person is clearly missing out on the pleasure of exploring the Bergmanian existentialism of Mad Men or the Salinger-with-a-twist nature of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Because there is so much great television to consume, comparing shows to other more respected forms of art has become the norm, and the uninitiated can find a great starting point to consuming smart TV with How to Watch Television.
Edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, How to Watch Television contains a variety of essays that use specific shows to discuss matters like neoliberalism, social engagement, feminism, irony and poetry, taste, the value of soap operas, transnational viewing, and the effects of overexposure to product placement in society. There’s not a single dull page in this book, which is divided in sections that place the essays in the appropriate context.
Among the standouts are Jeremy G. Butler’s essay “Mad Men: Visual Style”, which reminds us how episode after episode the show keeps making use of our collective knowledge of popular culture in order to create visual cues that add unexpected meanings to the show. Because we know more about what would come to happen in history than the characters in the show, we are often put in a place where we can feel like we’re accomplices with the creators, even as the show confronts us with our own perception of consumer culture. An essay entitled “Nip/Tuck: Popular Music”, by Ben Aslinger, discusses how the show uses musical cues to establish different moods, as opposed to most television shows which mostly recur to visual elements.
In the fascinating second chapter, “TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics”, the book explores the way in which various people are represented in television and includes essays on social identity and politics. For example, in “24: Challenging Stereotypes”, Evelyn Alsultany claims that the show arrived during a dangerous time for racial politics in America, given that Arabs were subjected to preconceptions regarding their relation to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. She suggests that the show helped people realize they were wrong and that terrorists could come from any racial and political background.
In the “The Amazing Race: Global Othering”, Jonathan Gray explores the way in which Americans are exposed to foreign cultures by stating that the show has helped reaffirm chauvinistic, racist projections because it hides under the disguise of being “reality TV”. While some praise the show for its excitement and “smarts”, this essay accuses the show of embracing ignorance and even worse, perpetuating the ridiculous notion that if something is shown on TV, then it must be real.
How to Watch Television discusses as many television shows as it does ideas about how to approach them with a critical perspective. Reading the book is easier if you’re already familiar, or even better, a fan of the shows it discusses, but the editors have done an efficient job of selecting programs that in one way or another have defined modern television.
Of course, there will always be things left out in an anthology, and this book mostly focuses on shows that have received critical acclaim, when it would’ve been interesting to read about why something like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo connects with audiences in ways that Homeland doesn’t, or what shows on The CW network have to say about teenage sexuality. However, with its playful, scholarly tone and challenging notions about genres and audience reactions, How to Watch Television will probably become a staple in communication schools for years to come.