Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, the preeminent film historian and critic David Thomson has produced an oversized book about television that should find itself under many trees this Christmas. After filling a film lover’s bookshelf with thought-provoking volumes like HOW TO WATCH A MOVIE, THE BIG SCREEN: THE STORY OF THE MOVIES, MOMENTS THAT MADE THE MOVIES, and THE WHOLE EQUATION: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD, Thomson has turned his attention to what he calls “the elephant in the room”—the television set that became the focus of our living rooms in the post-World War II era. His account is more than a little bittersweet as we find ourselves living in a time when “watching television” has taken on a host of new meanings. No longer confined to our living rooms, television has now migrated to our phones, tablets, and other yet-to-be invented mobile screens that give us 24/7 access to information and entertainment. So, this is the appropriate time for someone like Thomson to take a critical look at the many ways television has created the world in which we live.
Thomson’s initial observations about television in TELEVISION: A BIOGRAPHY sets the tone for the remainder of his impressive tome: “The invention, or the quaint piece of furniture, wandered into our life in the 1940s, as a primitive plaything, a clever if awkward addition to the household. It was expensive, unreliable, and a bit of an invalid . . .The household pet of once upon a time became a strange, placid being—the elephant in the room, if you like—not a monster that attacked us and beat its Kong chest in triumph but an impassive force that quietly commandeered so much of what we thought was our attention, or consciousness, or our intelligence. Television wasn’t just an elephant in the room. It became the room, the house, and the world.” This last sentence gives a very succinct history of television from approximately 1945 to the very recent past.
Thomson is not really interested in writing a standard history of television that covers all the major developments in chronological order. He prefers instead to look at television in a variety of thematic ways, including chapters on sitcoms, Donna Reed, the popular late 1950s criticism from Newton Minnow that TV is little more than a “vast wasteland,” the role of TV in shaping American and world politics (a certainly relevant topic in light of last week’s Presidential hoopla), comedy, police shows, commercials, variety shows, talk shows, and documentaries. He divides these discussions and examinations into two parts—“The Medium” that focuses the reality that TV creates and “The Message” that defines the language of TV and how that language is being translated in the world of mobile technology.
One of the more interesting insights–and there are many–in Thompson’s analysis is the emergence of what he calls “television people.” When TV was in its infancy, during the 1940s and early 1950s, most television shows were live recreations of plays or radio dramas. In fact, many of the early stars of TV were recycled vaudeville or radio personalities. All this changed with “I Love Lucy,” arguably the first TV sitcom. Admittedly, members of the show’s cast, with the possible exception of Desi Arnaz, were no strangers to the movie and radio crowd, but “I Love Lucy” transformed them into full-fledged television people. During the Cold War era, particularly in the early 1950s, there was widespread fear among the “movie people” that the new medium of television would all but shut down movie theatres. Why take the trouble to venture outside your living room to see a movie when you could more easily transform your living room into a theatre? Television changed the contours of the American home–at least the middle class home. Whereas the kitchen had formerly been the focus of the architecture, television shifted this focus into the living room. Think of how many family photographs during the 1950s show family members clustered around the living room TV set. I can vividly recall the “TV Lounge” my parents added to Kelly’s Motel when I was growing up.
My dad didn’t want to go to the expense or the aggravation of installing a TV in each of our guest rooms, but he saw the necessity of our TV Lounge. This quickly became a gathering place for our guests–we only had 12 rooms–and a focal point in those pre-Facebook and texting days. When we refer to “television people” we must also include those watching as well as those performing on the small screen.
The list of television people is now pretty vast and includes not only the stars of those early sitcoms–Lucy, Desi, Fred, Ethel, Marshall Dillon, Ozzie, Harriet, Andy, Barney–but also later additions like Archie Bunker, Mary Richards, Columbo, and the many denizens of Reality TV, not to mention news anchors and talk and game show hosts. Yes, we should also include the casts of those endless mini-series that have come to dominate cable and streaming networks (i.e. “Mad Men,””Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Walking Dead”). Some, like Thomson, tend to place these later developments into a post-TV-era category, given the fact that streaming has changed the traditional definition of what a TV is.
As much as I hate any term with the word “post” in it, I will have to admit that my wife and I belong to the post-TV generation. We have been without a cable box for several years now, preferring to stream everything or to watch stuff from our extensive DVD and Blu-Ray collection. Thomson invites us to peek into the future (which is now the present by the time you read this) by considering how the VR revolution will further alter our definitions of TV. “It is Oculus now,” observes Thomson, although “it will have rivals and other names. Perhaps it is just the latest big thing, soon to be surpassed. But it may be a radical reappraisal of movie and TV so far. So big a thing, it makes us forget the past.” And he then asks us a provocative question: “Isn’t it the best evidence that we are becoming screens—plastic, masked, anonymous, isolated?”
I urge you to read Thomson’s book and to contemplate what he is saying. At this point, there is no better source on the history and meaning of TV culture.
See you (no pun intended) next week.