Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who Watches the Watchers: Sepinwall and Seitz's TV (The Book)

A scene from The Sopranos, one of more than 100 shows discussed in Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz's TV (The Book).

“When you hear the words The Dick Van Dyke Show, imagine the gears of a Swiss watch ticking.”
– Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, TV (The Book).

The best criticism, whether it is of the written word or flickering images on a screen, isn't tempered by love – it is fuelled by it. TV (The Book) (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), by television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, has the stated ambition to present an established TV canon, to boil down decades of television and take a first crack at providing readers with an "essential viewing list." Substantial television criticism is as new as TV's still-recent surge in ambition and quality, and popular book-length studies of any comprehensive nature are rare (Sepinwall's own 2012 The Revolution Was Televised and David Bianculli's 2016 The Platinum Age of Television are among the few). Sepinwall and Seitz shared a TV column in New Jersey's Star-Ledger in the late 90's and, though this is their first collaboration in two decades, the dialectical spirit of that relationship marks the text as a whole. With TV (The Book), Sepinwall and Seitz offer an appropriately down-to-earth reflection on an art form that is populist par excellence, a book that is more conversation than classroom.

Despite the lack of humility of the book's subtitle, Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, it is actually an understatement of what the text offers. The two authors do much more than merely identify the best shows: they debate, discuss, analyze, celebrate, and sometimes bemoan the greatest products of almost seven decades of American television. It opens with a playful and transparent inquiry into the book's very conceit, as they debate whether The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Cheers, The Wire, or Breaking Bad deserves the top spot. Framed as a dialogue, the opening pages welcome the reader into a debate on the very question of how to quantify and compare such a diverse body of work and produce anything resembling a list of the "greatest." What the two come up with – a layered metric that puts a number value on qualities like innovation, influence, consistency, performance, storytelling, and peak (the last being an assessment of the series at its best) – allows for a show to be weighed with and against its own ambitions, in relation to what came before and later, and also on its own inherent terms. (Spoiler: The Simpsons wins.)

Sepinwall's Revolution focused on twelve shows that he picked out as the most influential of our new Golden Age of television (featuring chapter-length studies of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others), but it was limited – self-consciously – to dramatic series (a shortcoming that I noted in my 2012 review). Here that lacuna is addressed, and more. Not only does comedy figure broadly across TV, but also animated shows – though not children's programming as such – and a broad survey of great American television from its very beginnings. The new book, it should be noted, is limited to American scripted television; often to the authors' own frustration, it does not cover the full field of English-language shows, with British, Canadian, and Australian productions mentioned only in passing. With that caveat, this 400-plus-page book is as comprehensive as any TV enthusiast could hope for. 

TV (The Book) is structured, roughly, in terms of its central Top 100 list, from The Simpsons (#1) to Terriers (#100), though that format is regularly and happily dispensed with as needed – with a number of shows paired up in a single entry, scores be damned, and brief deep dives into mini-genres that result in some of the most fascinating entries in the volume. These include: SpongeBob SquarePants with (the lower-ranked!) The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show; Wiseguy alongside Paul Haggis' famously ill-treated EZ Streets; a four-show entry that spans decades with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Jack Benny Program, and Soap; and The Golden Girls and Friends – the latter pairing becoming so marked by the end that this reader can't now imagine how anyone can ever have spoken meaningfully of the two sitcoms in isolation.

No doubt every reader will celebrate the placement of a favourite series (as I did with my beloved Terriers and the still underappreciated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, at #92) and look askance at other inclusions (Miami Vice at #51?). But every entry comes accompanied by reasoned argument, context, and an abundance of passion. Some of the most compelling pages defend the most unexpected inclusions (see above, #51). While the list Sepinwall and Seitz have generated is certainly weighted at the top end towards the cable era and latter half of American television history, some of the best entries are lengthy disquisitions on shows, like Gunsmoke (#60), that, frankly, I have given very little thought to.

The authors are also happily willing to slay a few sacred cows (going out on a limb and declaring NBC's adaptation of The Office to be better at its peak than the otherwise pitch-perfect BBC original, or debunking generally accepted myths around the decline of Moonlighting). Its inaugural entry on The Simpsons might be the best of the lot. It includes this passage on the famous Sideshow Bob rake scene (which Seitz introduces as representing "the whole spectrum of humor folded and refolded into a single gag") that is so exquisite that when I first read it, I leapt from my chair and ran to read it aloud to my wife:
That the onslaught of the rakes is so tedious, so basic, so not personal, only makes it worse. Everywhere Bob steps, a rake, a rake, another rake. The rakes stand in for every twist of fate that sabotages Bob’s plan, every indignity heaped upon him, every eventuality his supposed genius could not foresee, every moment of potential glory snatched from his grasp. And of course the rake is also Bart Simpson: the Road Runner to Bob’s Wile E. Coyote, Droopy Dog to Bob’s Wolf. Bob’s guttural shudders (a brilliant verbal flourish by guest star Kelsey Grammer) are not merely expressions of physical agony but marrow-deep self-disgust. Each time a rake hits Bob in the face, it confirms his secret fear that beneath his educated facade and delusions of omnipotence, he’s still an unemployable TV clown, a second banana in his own life, a living embodiment of unmerited hubris and well-deserved failure – all of which, point of fact, he is. This lone gag crystallizes every facet of Bob in relation to the world of The Simpsons.
Ted Danson and Shelley Long in Cheers.

Whether in its nuanced rendering of the psychosexual dysfunction of the ups and downs of Sam and Diane's relationship on Cheers, or its defence of the "absurdist masterpiece" that is SpongeBob SquarePants, or its rumination on the "aggressively cinematic" Miami Vice, TV speaks with such engagement that even when the authors regularly criticize a show for its failings, it remains a celebration of everything that television can be capable of.

Each entry is tagged with the initials of its author (AS, MZS, and sometimes AS & MZS), which allows for the singular voice and perspective of the writer to come through – as with Seitz's beautiful entry on Frank's Place (a 1987 one-season wonder starring WKRP's Tim Reid) or Sepinwall's reflection on the unquestionable but painfully tarnished legacy of The Cosby Show. Sepinwall's guilelessness here, even as he reminds us why The Cosby Show and the man himself rightly belong in any television pantheon, reaches off the page: "Everything that was once funny, sexy, or inspiring about Cosby is unsettling now. Every value he claimed to stand for has been revealed as a lie. Everything he said or did, achieved or touched, has an asterisk, including his most significant achievement, The Cosby Show."

Both Sepinwall and Seitz speak from a place of full immersion in an expansive television universe, and every entry – even the briefest – invites a willing reader to join them. TV (The Book) was published this past fall, but I make no apologies for how long it has taken me to turn its final page. The book has served as my bedside reading for the past three months, often consumed only a few pages at a time – giving most of its segments a self-standing read, more intimate than its encyclopaedic conceit would imply. For this livelong lover of television, it was like ending every day in energizing debate with a close friend over shared enthusiasms.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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