Reviews

'Television: A Biography' Showcases How TV Is an Insanely Mutative Beast

David Thomson's lucrative and exhaustive biography of television reminds us that the continuously morphing state of TV matches our increasingly digitally-enhanced society.


Television: A Biography

Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Length: 412 pages
Author: David Thomson
Price: £19.95
Format: Hardback
Publication date: 2016-10
Amazon

Perhaps permanently dwarfed by cinema, television has often struggled to be considered in as serious cultural terms as film. Although television shows have received genuine critical evaluation and academic dissection, the medium of television itself has remained somewhat left behind.

David Thomson’s absorbing and authoritative read, Television: A Biography, gives plenty of evidence to suggest that this is true, as well as delivering a warm, readable account of television’s enveloping history. It’s a majestic book, in its physical shape and the content found inside, but as we’ll discover, it’s rarely pretentious. Television: A Biography pits the television viewer as a multi-faced creature, one who devours, embraces, rejects, and passively accepts what television brings to the sitting room, whichever channel the viewer may have on.

In the opening chapter, Thomson paints an eloquent picture of the television set as an unspoken hub of the contemporary family, an object that’s permanently switched on without demanding our attention in the same way that cinema does. Throughout the book, Thomson objectifies the medium of television as an entity that’s forever resting in the back of our minds whilst always placed in full view of its audience. In today’s age of just about every electronic device we own essentially being a small television set, his theories ring eerily resonant.

Beyond such ideas and concepts however, Thomson makes time to discuss the content of television itself. Such genres as documentaries, comedies and the news come under his microscope. With each chapter however, you realize that this isn’t simply an exhaustive account of decade’s worth of television and its contents. Instead, what he gives us is an exquisite account of television’s cultural impact, pieced together through cherry-picked shows, stars and genres of the medium.

In taking this approach however, the question of this book’s audience becomes readily apparent. Is it a book meant to gather dust in a university library, removed from its home once in a blue moon when a television studies student needs to scan a few chapters for their forthcoming essay? Or should it be on the shelves of keen academics and general deep thinkers, who have mastered the fine art of consuming and savouring popular culture?

Overall, Television: A Biography has the power to be devoured by both audiences, and anyone in general with a fascination for both the history and the impact of television. Thomson takes each genre and show from the world of television, no matter the era of its run, and universalizes them through his sharp-minded case studies. Masterfully handling television’s variety of genres, sub-genres within genres and audiences, he crafts a rather intimate picture of television itself, both as a transmitter of message and as a literal object.

Thomson writes with a confident stride, with each chapter itself containing a vast wealth of ideas and concepts that could really work better as entire books on their own. Thomson’s compact, fluid writing style is at odds with the amount of ideas and concepts he pushes into the reader’s view, allowing them to think a little deeper about the cultural implications television often comes with, but always ties together the loose ends into a satisfying conclusion.

Oddly however, Thomson’s various hypothesizes of television’s impact never feel dictated to the reader. They’re never forced down our throats as ideas that we must accept as the outcome of television’s outcome in its multitude of genres and eras. Instead, Thomson places concepts for us to indulge in ourselves, but still maintains an authoritative touch that keeps the book chugging along at a brisk pace.

Television: A Biography is a definitive read on the subject of television, but not without a degree of caution. In the introductory chapter, Thomson elaborates on how television, whatever its physical definition, is a growing object that can’t be stopped. “Television, or something like it, will outlast us.” In television’s seemingly infinite state of growth, Thomson’s book is definitive, but only for now. As he suggests himself, the state in which television will find itself in the future is difficult to comprehend. When we examine how television has evolved since its inception, both literally and culturally, it boggles the mind to think where it might be in 100 years’ time, and where we might be with it as a society that consumes more television today than we ever have done before.

If only Thomson could write an equally absorbing account of that far-flung future of television as he has done here, it would be a most welcome work.

9

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.