Only Disconnect: A review of Television: A Biography by David Thomson

Reviewed by Sherif Abdelkarim

Television: A Biography
By David Thomson
Thames & Hudson
ISBN-13: 978-0500519165, 2016, 304 pages

When television first entered our homes, it struck us more as a curiosity in modern furniture than a technological feat. This is the 1940s, when you’d be lucky to get a good signal and couldn’t choose but from a few programs on a few channels for a few hours each day. This would change exponentially over the coming decades, but the box in those days, like these, primarily completed a salon’s ensemble as “a clever if awkward addition to the household.” More significantly, the living room—or basement, or kitchen, or bedroom—set became a sort of friend and family member, always there to share. In no time, our acquaintanceship with this new medium blossomed into a deep intimacy, to the point that we could simply let our TVs play in empty rooms; perhaps this is a symptom of our overconsumption or carelessness, but for celebrated film critic David Thomson, habits like leaving the TV on while we shower, cook, or walk the dog speak not so much to our familiarity with these boxes and the comfort we expect them to bring us, as to our total dependence on them to stay eternally on.

Commercial television’s beginnings are rough and ready. At the level of production, early teleplays—a scaled-down emulation of theater, film, and radio—were cheap but popular, capable of launching the Hollywood careers of many a young talent (James Dean, Grace Kelly), while numerous titles would be adapted into hit movies (Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Miracle Worker, Twelve Angry Men). Despite the distant promise of success, established stars shied away from TV in its early days for understandable reasons (poor picture quality, poor pay, poor viewership), while Hollywood’s B-listers resorted to it. “People wondered” at first, Thomson recounts, “if the craze could last—but then it spread, like weather.”

The increased issuing of government licenses, combined with greater financial support for the programs aired, enabled new stations to sprout after the war. Americans soon witnessed television’s first golden age, thanks to live television plays (Kraft Television Theatre, The Philco Television Playhouse), filmed anthologies (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone), and more innovative programs like sitcoms (I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver) and gameshows, scandals notwithstanding (What’s My Line?, I’ve Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth). Especially true of sitcoms and gameshows, the programs of the 1950s and 60s promoted home living, an appropriate tendency given that “TV was born in domesticity. It promised to be fun, controllable, like a pet—a puppy maybe. Then it grew,” and hasn’t stopped growing since. In the early days, the “big three” radio networks CBS, NBC, and ABC first dominated TV’s airwaves. Soon, others would attract investors through ever-higher ratings. Today, over fifty networks stand in operation, parent to nearly two hundred channels, hosts to every conceivable and inconceivable subject under the sun.

Cable TV, honed over decades, has come to specialize the viewing experience, yet even though advances in receiver technologies and picture quality have allowed the small screen to seriously contend with the big, what’s always given TV edge over cinema has been its informality. “We went to the movies, as if going to a stage play… it would happen at one public place at one announced moment.” With the new medium, by contrast, people “didn’t actually have to watch” since they themselves weren’t being watched. They didn’t need to dress up for the show, or even be in the room.

And in case we were in the other room, and missed the reruns and retrospective specials, David Thomson’s Television: A Biography entertains and instructs readers (if sometimes crudely, other times abrasively so) as they revisit some of television’s most significant moments, both memorable and obscure. Thomson warns us early on that his so-called “biography” will not cleave to the genre’s traditional forms, such as chronology; instead, he groups its twenty-one, stand-alone chapters (essays, really) into thematic sections. Restricting himself to Anglo-American programming, which he juxtaposes across time and genre, the volume’s chapters fall under one of two Parts—The Medium, which looks at the formal aspects of television (e.g., lighting and camera, TV acting, commercials, laugh tracks), and The Messages, whose essays are arranged based on major themes and genres (cop dramas, news, women, sports). The book’s structure articulates Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message,” which holds media to be extensions of our senses; like all media, and one of the most influential, television has shaped how we process the content we’ve received through our evolving sets.

All told, Thomson’s is a critical assessment of television’s effects on society. At times, the author appears to accept the medium for the lurid wasteland that it is—says the film critic, “snobbery melted away with television, and worthlessness became entirely acceptable. Time could be wasted.” Still, at no point does Thomson quit his suspicion that this new way of living—of watching life in living rooms—warps our conceptions of civic duty, morality, and life itself. According to him, our overexposure and desensitization to mass-scale catastrophes from around the world have conditioned us to receive breaking news like blockbusters in real time; tragedies like the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, 9/11, or Katrina are eerily watchable, as though made for television, indeed relied on by newscasters to boost ratings.

Television’s triumphs are many, however, and Thomson counts the domain of advertising as one of its greatest—as though TV were made for commercials and not the other way around. These messages complemented the medium so perfectly as to preclude regular programming—it was the ads that sustained a show financially, and a program’s health is still measured by its commercials. And for most of TV’s existence, especially its younger years, the shows themselves were loaded with product plugs and placements, such that television’s “message,” if one must pick one, must be “that any American dilemma was just a set of soluble narrative difficulties, the solving of which led to purchase and the blithe assumption that that would take care of the nation.” This basic, for-profit model of the viewing (and living) experience has overshadowed the few genuinely non-profit services available (PBS). Some of the cleverest writing and directing may have gone into commercials, but ultimately their insidious, “calculated interruption” has both interrupted our viewing experience and damaged our attention spans, thinks Thomson.

The first section of Thompson’s book is devoted to an analysis of various “themes” that are central to understanding television. In one chapter, for example, he studies the role television played in reinforcing the ideal of the American housewife—cheerful, supportive, submissive. As an example, he treats The Donna Reed Show to a powerful, feminist critique; with women at home, the domestic sets offered housewives “with as little to do as Donna Stone” something to watch “until their gang came home.” In another, he examines the allure of the fantasies of escapism. Many of TV’s most memorable characters (think Don Draper or Walter White) embody this distinct feature of the American dream—the urge to reinvent, try again, think big. The author treats to a close reading an episode of The Fugitive to showcase the alluring escapism the medium offered audiences, exhibited in Richard Kimble, a poster boy for vagary, for obliviousness “to money worries, health issues, friends, or relatives.” The series sold a romantic idea “of dangerous liberty on the open road, as if Kimble might be journeying on the frontier of 1750.” Shows like The Fugitive or The Donna Reed Show thus presented worlds free of politics, boredom, and discontent; they offered escape from real-world social challenges and duties, and were, of course, themselves thirty-minute commercials for home and hair products, for cigarettes.

Judged according to his stated aim of providing a “biography” of television, Thomson’s achievement here is mixed. To be sure, he does convey impressive amounts of pop-cultural history in an intelligent way, and the work brings television into quite fruitful conversations with other media, notably film. Despite this, I found the book’s topical organization haphazard at times, and imagine that readers lacking photographic memories and strengths of synthesis might not walk away from the volume with a clear conception of television’s life and times. Nonetheless, the work enjoys many strengths, in particular Thomson’s consistently sharp and humorous style, which he directs toward incisive summaries and commentaries of individual programs and personalities alike. His reading of M*A*S*H is a case in point, as he threads multiple characters and plots to discern relevant themes; loose ends are often tied with a heady claim about the whole TV-watching experience:

I saw the finale of M*A*S*H in February 1983, and I was happily appreciative of it. I tried to watch it again for the purpose of this book and I couldn’t endure it. As to re-viewing the complete 256 episodes, that prospect is outlandish. It’s not that the show wasn’t good, or well done, or one of the best sitcoms ever made. But the viewing situation was being alive and there for that moment. That’s how television finds its best nature.

Writing and acting aside, Thomson suggests that M*A*S*H built its moment simply by being “on,” by being there, in the moment for us to witness it. This is how a fictional show or sporting event becomes history in the making. It’s also how history, how breaking news degrades into mere entertainment, and television a lurid wasteland—think Jerry Springer, or Trump the campaigner, aware “that the whole thing was only a show, a sit, in which he could hire and fire people, ideas, and semblances of reality.” Again, the specter of our mysterious screens, jinn-like, threatens to suck the life from us, to redesign us as witnesses—not living, thinking participants—of our world, too apathetic to bother with meaningful social/political engagement, a prospect that horrifies Thomson. Like our screens, “we risk being always ‘on’ without the need for thought, or critical alertness.”

Thomson isn’t entirely pessimistic about television’s course, however. After all, so much of Thomson’s angst stems from his fears for our future as a society, which television once helped shape and preserve. Thus the author concedes that the medium, even in its—in our?—twilight, might faintly still unite audiences, or occasionally provide some precious nuggets of information about their world; still, while television once did bring friends, families, and the whole nation together, even this benefit seems increasingly imperiled in an age of smart screens small and large.

Alive to this reality, Thomson’s “biography” takes us right to the present moment, where television no longer serves as a mass medium. He notes that “the thing we used to call television doesn’t quite exist now. The sacred fixed altar (the set) has given up its central place of worship and is now just one screen among so many.” As to our future, the author offers no easy solutions: “Is there any reason to think we are in charge of the landslide? Tell me the large technologies humans have stopped, diverted, or put a brake on?” Perhaps the best and only solution remaining is an individual one. As he tells us early on, “This is going to be a book about the cultural atmosphere our several small screens have made, and how we have little power over their momentum beyond the on/off switch.” Why not then just turn it off, if only for a day? Half a day? Well. With nearly 400 pages of prose, insightful and impressively arrayed, furnished with thought-provoking photos and a helpful index, Television: A Biography should help you do this.

About the reviewer: Sherif Abdelkarim is an Assistant Professor of medieval literature and English historical linguistics at Grinnell College. His research focuses on hypocrisy and the figure of the hypocrite in Old English, Middle English, and Classical Arabic poetry and thought. He’s also at work on a collection of poems, Fits, and a collection of short stories, Tall Tales. He watches too much television.