Saturday, September 16, 2017

Watching and Worrying – David Thomson's Television: A Biography

Television can’t be an easy thing to write a book about, given its rapid ongoing evolution into new forms – given, too, the sheer unconquerable volume of sound and image, brilliance and nonsense that have coursed from the small screen since it buzzed to something like life in the late 1930s. But David Thomson, one of our best historian-critics, is also one of our most ambitious writers. Among his more than 30 books are two major critical histories of film, one focusing on Hollywood (2004’s The Whole Equation), the other taking a more global vantage (2012’s The Big Screen). His mammoth Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975, is now in its sixth edition, and he writes a detailed, eccentric, irresistible “personal introduction to 1,000 films” (2008’s “Have You Seen … ?”) with the same bell-ringing ease that Johnny B. Goode brought to playing a guitar. So it’s with a rueful smile and admiring shake of the head that we who know Thomson’s tendencies to great scale and world-encompassing thought, as well as his vast knowledge and masterly ability to combine fact and reverie, regard his latest book and say that yes, of course he has the stuff to write a critical history of television, and he will earn the right, if anyone will, to give it a title as provocatively blunt and accurate as Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson; 412 pp.). 

Though ambitious, Thomson is also modest, an unfailing gentleman – it’s one of his most endearing qualities – and he often apologizes in these pages for ignoring or giving insufficient consideration to shows or stars that the reader might value. But there is a driving desire in the book to cover as much ground as possible, to cram and consume huge amounts of televisual matter along with the technical structures that support and deliver it, the economics that determine it, and the cultural ecosystem that forms it – and surely no big book about TV is justified if it doesn’t attempt this degree of voracity. Thomson is not only a prodigious viewer; he’s also impressively up to date: Television: A Biography was published about a year ago, but it’s current enough to countenance Donald Trump. (Though the 2016 election hadn’t been decided, Thomson clearly had his suspicions: Trump is amply considered as a representative or harbinger of various things, while Hillary Clinton is not mentioned even in passing.)

If Television is not finally as seaworthy a book as Thomson’s big movie tomes – which are built as solidly as ships, with many flags and sails of beauteous prose whipping off the masts – it may be because of a certain structural confusion. Thomson doesn’t follow chronology as in The Whole Equation and The Big Screen, or the alphabet as in The Biographical Dictionary of Film; he opts instead for thematic groupings (Part One, “The Medium,” and Part Two, “The Messages”) whose parameters and dynamics aren’t at all clear. The contents of Part One are not markedly different from those of Part Two, though the latter is twice as long. The book is essentially a series of themed essays focusing either on types of TV programming – drama, sitcom, sports, long-form serial, documentary, news – or on issues which the medium compulsively raises but cannot resolve – the ubiquity of ads; the treatment of female characters, and of femininity in general; the contorted position of the black TV hero (represented here by Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson). There’s a tumbling, arbitrary quality to the presentation; many chapters could be rearranged without altering discovery or meaning, so there’s no sense of build, of one chapter advancing on the assertions of the last. Even Thomson’s cleverest segues cannot always compensate for missing intellectual links. His fascinating portrait of Colonel Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder and figurehead, reveals the cosmic gap between the man and the commercial icon; but it comes at the end of a chapter called “Talking Heads,” which is mostly about interview shows. Why didn’t it come earlier, in the chapter on ads?

The book can be tonic and taxing at the same time, as Thomson struggles persistently but inconclusively with issues inherent to both popular fiction and electronic transmission. He holds most of TV to task for its unwillingness to engage truthfully and deeply with the insoluble problems of our brutal world – for not going dark and staying dark – yet elsewhere he says, “So much of TV has been stolid with realism, blind and deaf to the inward dream.” As he acknowledges, Thomson once wrote a book called America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1978), which warned that the popular movie audience was being fed fantasies so insidiously attractive that they were bound to supplant the pleasure of individual dreams, of each person’s unique, non-commercialized fantasy life. There’s an apparent contradiction in the polemic: he scolds the medium and its audience for being too escapist – or escapist in the wrong way – while decrying TV’s abandonment of fantasy. (Presumably he means constructive fantasy, not the bourgeois dreamland of the family sitcom.) Following its polemical path, the prose often runs on, or down, into rhetorical doom-saying and open-ended question-asking; not that the questions are foolish or the doom unwarranted – only that the writing at such terminal points is sometimes vaporous, glib, tired. Even the what-the-hell titles of concluding chapters – “Live?” “Documentary?” – suggest a certain late-inning fatigue in the author.

But all of that is to be accepted in exchange for what Thomson gives. Let the structure be awry or the development obscure; we’ll put the pieces together. We’re inside a real imagination here, looking through an inner eye that sees bizarre shapes behind bland façades. Sometimes the shapes are fun, warm, even comic. Thomson has quirky favorites, things like The Gong Show and Friends, which flash metaphor to his delighted mind; he enjoys the transient phenomenon of Chuck Barris more than I thought any non-ironist could. (He also calls Allen Funt’s Candid Camera “a frivolous, playful marvel”; I always found the show tasteless and misanthropic – so there’s plenty to disagree with.) There will be, for each reader, a recurrent pleasure akin to nostalgia, yet not quite that – more the pleasure of being reminded of something. I thank Thomson for reminding me, for instance, of the late-seventies Polaroid commercials that starred Mariette Hartley and James Garner; how much better and more painful a cop show Homicide: Life on the Streets was than Law and Order; and that there was once a TV star named Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

David Thomson. (Photo: Lucy Gray)
A unique synthesis of eras and cultures, David Thomson doesn’t write as a TV baby but as one who recalls, if only just, a time before television – when radio was the dominant domestic dream box. Though a naturalized citizen who has lived in America for forty-odd years, he remains an Englishman at heart, and so shifts constantly and confidently between American and English frames of reference. This pays off richly in his considerations of BBC comedy (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers), drama (the epic miniseries of Dennis Potter, the early social dramas of Ken Loach), and documentary (the terrifying hypotheses of Peter Watkins, the educational sweep of 1968’s Civilization and 1972’s Ways of Seeing). Thomson loves being distracted by mental puzzles, and crunching numbers in an imaginative kind of scratchpad math: “Just try calculating the total [number of TV ads] you’ve seen. Assume ten an hour, and allow that you have seen three hours of TV a day for forty years: The answer is 483,000 ads.” He savors the ironic fact that four broadcast hours are required to show one hour of Super Bowl football – with the ball in live play for perhaps 17 minutes of that hour. Though far from a conventional biography, Television has facts galore, and Thomson revels in these as well: numbers of TV sets in use at a given time; audience sizes for specific shows, places, and time periods; advertising hours purchased, in what numbers and at what prices; who won how many Emmys and for what; how many billions of dollars were lost due to people stopping work to watch the O.J. Simpson trial. If you want to know how many episodes ran of General Hospital or The Young and the Restless, the answer is here.

Our author feels no end of strange enchantments. He’s enthralled by the idea that Karl Freund, the pioneering German Expressionist cameraman and “visionary of dread,” photographed nearly 150 episodes of I Love Lucy. That cool suit of clothes known as Johnny Carson is described as “somewhere between a ghost and an angel . . . an immense, taunting unknown.” (The Biographical Dictionary of Film has a superb entry on Carson.) Thomson once built a novel, the deeply disturbing Suspects (1985), on the imaginary lives of famous movie characters – pasts and futures, frequently horrifying and always plausible, which he dreamed up for the likes of Jeff Jeffries, Norma Desmond, Matty Walker, Travis Bickle, Kay Corleone, Bree Daniels, and Noah Cross. He plays the same wicked game here, his rumination on the most famously vapid of late-Eisenhower domestic comedies leading, without any contrivance, to a scenario both logical and deranged: “I’d like to see an episode of The Donna Reed Show where the family follow the Cuba crisis of 1962, or come home from seeing Rebel Without a Cause . . . or Psycho.”

As art design, pure aesthetic technology, Television is a thing to behold, and to hold. It is large, weighty, a fancy phone book. As laid out, cropped down, and blown up by designer Beth Tondreau, a mere 92 images spread over nearly 400 pages of text somehow give the impression of bounteous color, action, and mystery. Production stills and frame enlargements are varied in subject and size; somewhat in the manner of Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), an innocuous image on one page will be reduced on another to some transforming detail, a suddenly sinister gesture or expression. Sometimes images are juxtaposed, without comment, on facing pages. James Arness as Matt Dillon, the sheriff of Gunsmoke, is reflected or regarded by former NBC anchor Brian Williams (whose face is a phantom presence in the book); on one page, Nancy Marchand dances with Rod Steiger in the 1953 teleplay Marty, and on the other, Marchand, as Tony’s mother on The Sopranos, dances with James Gandolfini fifty years later. Toward the end of the chapter on TV’s images of women, you turn the page to find it taken up almost completely with a production still from I Love Lucy, showing Lucille Ball sitting up in bed, in a frilly nightgown. On the wall is a dainty ballerina painted in oil; on the bookshelf, a row of feminine figurines; and on Lucy’s face, an expression of the most abject misery. The image is a quiet shock.

Nancy Marchand and Rod Steiger in Marty (1953).

There can be no serious study of television without a lot of worrying. What about the medium worries David Thomson? Mostly the typical things – violence, passivity, commerce colonizing thought and feeling. He worries that what is sold to us as freedom of choice is so often a deeper bondage: consider the ads for cable packages and streaming systems that boast of putting power in your hands – the power to pay more money, watch more TV, and grow more insular. He worries about the death of TV-watching as a centering or unifying potential, a means of feeling part of a huge audience sharing a common experience: “The mass we once were has turned into an archipelago of discerning individuals.” The book’s final, most encompassing fear is of some totalitarian, Orwellian capability in the electronic superstructure of our lives (he has already invoked the telescreens of Nineteen Eighty-Four): “We are all of us profiled all the time as part of the techno-commercial system by which our corporate structures (private and governmental) attempt to keep charge of us and keep us in order as predictable elements in the market.” He worries about the widespread internalization of cinematic tropes into real life, the feel for telegenic drama and “wow” value that are apparent even in acts of mass slaughter: the World Trade Center attack, we’re reminded, “took place in a major urban center at a time of day that would grab ratings,” and was “precisely focused, with iconic imagery worthy of a big movie.”

But David Thomson’s worries are never merely those of an academic hand-wringer or outraged humanist. They’re charged by something extra, a nervous, conspiratorial fear, to which the lunatic prophecies of Network (1976) and the mostly hidden horrors of Abu Ghraib and “enhanced interrogation” serve as touchstones. The worries are informed by a sense of doom that Thomson can’t get away from, perhaps because he doesn’t want to – perhaps because it attracts him, because in venturing the dark he prizes the light more highly. He feels that TV is important, valuable, in proportion to its ability to leave us with a residue of dread, and with that a quickened sense of life. Years ago, Thomson was heard to say that film noir as a genre began on November 24, 1963, the day Lee Harvey Oswald, while surrounded by policemen and reporters, was murdered by Jack Ruby in a parking garage in Dallas. Here, he describes watching that moment live, as a young man in England: “I could not help but believe there was a script being worked out. . . . I felt excited and urgently alive.” Maybe that’s why he’s written this book; maybe that’s the edgy terror he wants and needs to feel. Maybe that’s why he’s still watching: to see how the script will end.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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