Yup, I've decided that watching too much TV is not enough of a time suck for me, I'm also going to read books about TV. Or, I should say, MORE books about TV.
First up today is a book I really, really loved: David Bianculli's The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific. I read this sucker from cover to cover and now I want to just completely throw in the towel, stop going outside, and just watch TV all the time. Bianculli, a longtime TV critic for NPR's Fresh Air, clearly knows his stuff (he's been writing TV criticism since 1975) and organizes his book into genre-ready sections, from soap operas and crime to family sitcoms and workplace sitcoms to animation and spies. Each section includes 3-8 page (or so) descriptions of five or so seminal programs in each genre (ostensibly charting the "evolution" of each genre, but I didn't read the segments in order, so that was lost on me), and the sections are written to be both informative and enticing. I've tried to write both literary and TV criticism, and trust me, it's hard to write program and book summaries that give you a flavor of the piece AND make you want to see or read it, all while trying not to give too much away. Take, for instance, "The Wire," which I have thought about watching, but never quite got around to. But now I think I might have to make time:
"The first season of 'The Wire' seemed to be a straightforward police investigation into drugs, a longer version of the sort of case [David] Simon might have dramatized on NBC's 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' the series that pulled the former Baltimore police reporter into the orbit of television production. But as the season went on, we learned at least as much about the drug kingpins and street hustlers as we did about the cops. We got to know the detectives all right, especially Dominic West's Jimmy McNulty and Wendell Pierce's Bunk Moreland. But we also got to know, quite well, the drug kingpin Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba), the street-level drug dealer Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), and the opportunistic street thief Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). Breaks in the case were made methodically and slowly, and given the bureaucracy and obstacles in place, the odds were against them making much of a dent at all." (p. 456.)
He also includes interviews with a lot of TV's big names (Matt Groening, Carol Burnett, Vince Gilligan, Louis C.K., Carl Reiner...they're all listed on the back) and a short history/description of each drama. Although Kirkus Reviews disagreed with me, I thought this was a highly readable book, and I was glad that a critic dispensed with the nonsense of rating programs by stars, numbers, or even by ranking them. I did, however, think this book had a terrible title: the "platinum age" bit and the long subtitle made it sound more dry and academic than it actually was. Give this one a read if you're interested in the writers and creators of some great TV, not to mention the TV programs themselves.
My second TV read this month was The Daily Show (The Book), but I didn't enjoy that one nearly as much. It's a straight-up oral history, and there was very little context given for the conversations quoted. Plus, it was just more than I really needed to know about "The Daily Show." I only got to watch it online periodically when Jon Stewart was in charge (and I really miss that version, I'll admit) and I haven't seen it at all since Trevor Noah took over. This just wasn't the right book for me right now. Here's an example of how it just jumped right in, on the opening pages:
"JON STEWART, The Daily Show host, 1999-2015
At the time, I was obviously making my mark in such films as "Wishful Thinking" and "Dancing with Architecture" or "Dancing about"...Oh, no. They ended up calling it something else. "Playing by Heart," I think it was.
JAMES DIXON, manager for Jon Stewart, 1987-
After The Jon Stewart Show was canceled by Paramount, he was...not burnt on being on TV, but he wanted to kind of wet his feet with film. We had this nice deal with Harvey Weinstein, and Jon was down in Tribeca and he's getting to kiss Angelina Jolie in films."
Then there was another paragraph from Jon, about then working on "The Larry Sanders Show," and then the next speaker is Judd Apatow*:
"JUDD APATOW, standup comic, writer, director
Garry [Shandling] had the foresight to write about the talk show wars and this very subtle aspect of it, which is, you support a young comedian and slowly the network likes him more than it likes you, and then that younger guy, in ways that he understands and might not understand, slowly pushes you out of your job. Similar to what really happened with [Jay] Leno and Conan [O'Brien] and [Jimmy] Fallon. So there was a moment when Garry was considering continuing The Larry Sanders Show, and changing the name of it to The John Stewart Show, with an H so it wouldn't really be Jon. Everyone was excited about it for a while, but it went away." (pp. 1-2.)
The whole book was like that. It was ordered chronologically to cover the beginning of the show through Jon Stewart's retirement, but it was just too frenetic, with random people popping up throughout. I like oral histories, but I like them with a bit more organization and contextual information throughout. I basically skim-read this one, jumped about a bit, and then called it a day.
Two very different reads, and unless you're a hardcore (and I do mean hardcore) "The Daily Show" fan, I'd go with the Bianculli. Enjoy the rest of your week, all. I'm off to watch some TV.
*Yeah, it did not help this book's case that one of its first speakers was Judd Apatow. I am no Judd Apatow fan. I mean, yeah, Judd, sometimes your movies are funny and you know enough to keep casting Paul Rudd, but jeez, keep them to ninety minutes, would you? None of them are all that complicated plot-wise. Thanks much.