Greatest invention of the 20th century? Air-conditioning? The pill? Atomic anything? Sidle over for TV. What else has so revamped private, family, and communal time, so affected our ideas of world and self, so shaped our notions of what was happening, what was possible?
Three huge recent books try telling the story of this holy, ubiquitous, maligned eye in the sky, on the wall, in your pocket. In different ways, each tries to identify what was and is best, what changed, what will be.
Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, former longtime critic colleagues at the Newark Star-Ledger, set out in TV (The Book) (Grand Central, $19.99) to identify the 100 greatest scripted shows in U.S. history. There's an "Explanation," and then "The Great Debate," a transcript, we're told, of a Google chat between the two after they tried to pick number one and ended with a five-way tie. It's very effective ground-clearing.
They come up with a points system, as arbitrary as most, that lets them rank shows as "The Inner Circle" (top 10), "No-Doubt-About-It Classics" (11-50), "Groundbreakers and Workhorses" (51-75), and "Outlier Classics" (76-100) - the weird-but-wonderfuls such as the 1960s Batman, thirtysomething, Columbo, and so on.
I won't tell you number one - but The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are tied for second. That ought to get you thinking.
Entries for each show are superb, arguing cogently for its ranking. Even when I disagreed - Six Feet Under down near the 80s? Really? - I at least understood the basis of disagreement.
Listicles abound, as in Best Dads (number one: Charles Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie) and Moms (who else? June Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver), best cliff-hangers, best theme songs (Twilight Zone), best cars, spies, finales (The Shield), and pilots (Twin Peaks). The authors wisely include stuff they just plain like ("A Certain Regard"), and current shows - Mr. Robot, Veep, and Transparent - that may ascend to greatness.
What smacks you is the profundity of the best TV. M*A*S*H*, Lonesome Dove, The Wire, Sopranos, 24, Roots, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The West Wing, Girls. These and dozens more have had much to say, wide and deep, about where we are now, how we got here, and what it means. Trenchant protest, questions of philosophy, history, identity, belief. TV isn't often thought of as profound, but it deserves to be.
David Thomson's Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson, $34.95) is divided into McLuhanesque halves titled "Medium" (the "climate" of TV) and "Message" (themes and meanings in TV's history).
Thomson writes conversationally, teaching all the while. He offers fine set pieces on shows such as The Fugitive and The Donna Reed Show, and on traumas like the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.
He is tremendous on the rise (or return, really) of "long-form" TV, unspooling narrative threads across episodes and seasons. (All three books rightly proclaim the re-advent of long form as a turning point in TV's bio.)
Unlike the other two books, his has much to say about news. He is really good on "liveness," what is really live versus what just seems to be. The news show with "anchor" and selected "stories" is, he tells us, "already antiquated." The idea of news "coverage" leads inevitably to "infinite surveillance" of everything, all the time.
I asked Thomson what lies ahead. "More variety, more fragmentation," he wrote by e-mail, "more isolation in viewing, less community. BUT one day not so far away as we might think, the screen will be put inside our heads. We will change channels by desiring it. The contact will be instant, immense, and visceral or instinctive. It will excite us wildly, but we will be a little less human or social."
On/off switch, anyone?
Leave it on, for David Bianculli's The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Great (Doubleday, $32.50). A former Inquirer writer, a Peabody-winning critic, and a longtime presence on WHYY's Fresh Air, Bianculli is one of the most recognizable voices in TV crit. The subtitle states his argument: Thanks to its best shows, TV has indeed become a great medium.
His method is to group excellent shows by genre (soap operas, children's programs, crime, single working women sitcoms, and so on) and to intersperse profiles/interviews of a constellation of pivotal figures such as Matt Groening, Carol Burnett, Louis C.K., Carl Reiner, David Simon, Amy Schumer, Aaron Sorkin, and Larry Wilmore. These interviews are truly a book within the book, funny, surprising, and enlightening.
With a keen eye for crucial crossroads, missing links, and turning points, Bianculli shows how important The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was for later shows, fighting to address divisive social issues; how The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (a favorite of mine) cleared the path for sophisticated single-woman shows; and how The Simpsons and other Fox shows brought animation not only back, but also right to the front. Here are some video clips from 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour':
As in the two other books, we're reminded often of the significance and depth of TV. Maverick was a game-changing western because it presented "a protagonist who was not, by definition, heroic." Alias may have been a dramatized graphic novel, but it was also "deeply concerned about responsibility, loyalty, and the dangers of accepting orders, and even people, at face value." The Walking Dead asks, "When most aspects of everyday society are taken away, what's left? And, from that point on, what matters?"
I asked Bianculli: Has the success of TV pretty much put an end to old distinctions among low-, middle-, and highbrow entertainment - much like the Beatles, who are said to have destroyed high culture?
His answer was that TV, like the Beatles did, draws from everywhere, anywhere, to make something new and worthwhile. "Platinum Age TV auteurs did the same thing, by devouring and building upon the great TV they watched as impressionable teenagers," he wrote in an email. "Among the television writers, producers and stars I interviewed for the book, The Twilight Zone ended up inspiring more of them, from whatever different eras, than any other program."
For the first half of its existence, TV was a fugitive, come-and-gone medium. I asked Sepinwall whether that had changed. "Having access to most of the best TV shows ever made available with the push of a button (and the right streaming subscription) has been huge for improving the medium's reputation," he wrote back. "Now you don't have to just watch whatever is on, but can curate the experience and immerse yourself in these great series your friends won't stop talking about."
Lucy chases chocolates all over the conveyor belt forever. Tony Soprano looks up - and cut to black. Nucky Thompson, unbelieving, collapses on the Boardwalk. These three books place TV where it belongs: next to drama, poetry, novels, and the best music. Sidle over for TV.