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Television: A Biography

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In just a few years, what used to be an immobile piece of living room furniture, which one had to sit in front of at appointed times in order to watch sponsored programming on a finite number of channels, morphed into a glowing cloud of screens with access to a near-endless supply of content available when and how viewers want it. With this phenomenon now a common cultural In just a few years, what used to be an immobile piece of living room furniture, which one had to sit in front of at appointed times in order to watch sponsored programming on a finite number of channels, morphed into a glowing cloud of screens with access to a near-endless supply of content available when and how viewers want it. With this phenomenon now a common cultural theme, a writer of David Thomson’s stature delivering a critical history, or “biography” of the six-decade television era, will be a significant event which could not be more timely. With Television, the critic and film historian who wrote what Sight and Sound's readers called “the most important film book of the last 50 years” has finally turned his unique powers of observation to the medium that has swallowed film whole. Over twenty-two thematically organized chapters, Thomson brings his provocatively insightful and unique voice to the life of what was television. David Thomson surveying a Boschian landscape, illuminated by that singular glow—always “on”—and peopled by everyone from Donna Reed to Dennis Potter, will be the first complete history of the defining medium of our time.


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In just a few years, what used to be an immobile piece of living room furniture, which one had to sit in front of at appointed times in order to watch sponsored programming on a finite number of channels, morphed into a glowing cloud of screens with access to a near-endless supply of content available when and how viewers want it. With this phenomenon now a common cultural In just a few years, what used to be an immobile piece of living room furniture, which one had to sit in front of at appointed times in order to watch sponsored programming on a finite number of channels, morphed into a glowing cloud of screens with access to a near-endless supply of content available when and how viewers want it. With this phenomenon now a common cultural theme, a writer of David Thomson’s stature delivering a critical history, or “biography” of the six-decade television era, will be a significant event which could not be more timely. With Television, the critic and film historian who wrote what Sight and Sound's readers called “the most important film book of the last 50 years” has finally turned his unique powers of observation to the medium that has swallowed film whole. Over twenty-two thematically organized chapters, Thomson brings his provocatively insightful and unique voice to the life of what was television. David Thomson surveying a Boschian landscape, illuminated by that singular glow—always “on”—and peopled by everyone from Donna Reed to Dennis Potter, will be the first complete history of the defining medium of our time.

30 review for Television: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    J.S.

    As a kid I spent too many hours watching television. Mornings often began with Bugs Bunny cartoons, there were reruns of Gilligan's Island and Brady Bunch waiting for us after school, and most nights there was a 'favorite' show or something that had to be watched. Sunday nights we visited my Grandma, and often we watched television (especially if it was cold outside). But as an adult, I mostly avoid watching. It's not that I'm against TV, but with hindsight I can see that while it's sometimes en As a kid I spent too many hours watching television. Mornings often began with Bugs Bunny cartoons, there were reruns of Gilligan's Island and Brady Bunch waiting for us after school, and most nights there was a 'favorite' show or something that had to be watched. Sunday nights we visited my Grandma, and often we watched television (especially if it was cold outside). But as an adult, I mostly avoid watching. It's not that I'm against TV, but with hindsight I can see that while it's sometimes entertaining, it's also a significant time-waster. Still, I couldn't help but be interested in this 'biography' of television. David Thomson looks at it in 2 parts: first, the "climate of TV" and second, the messages: "news, drama, live TV, police shows, comedies, documentary, and so on" (pg 24) in each chapter. And while he is often very insightful, he's also incredibly sarcastic. For one who professes to love television, he seems to approach it as any critic would - and by 'critic' I mean someone who's obviously seen way too much of it. His is a jaded view that mirrors the cover quote calling TV a "vast wasteland." Nonetheless, he tells us what he thinks was good television, and it's more often than not British. But for me it's his jaded sarcasm that gets in the way of his message. He's certainly got a way with words, but even though I don't necessarily disagree with him, it all begins to feel a bit too much. Negativity might be fine for some folks, but it began to weigh heavily on me and I certainly didn't look forward to picking up the book again. In fact, I'm putting it back on the shelf for the time being, having only made it half-way so far. (I'm not marking it DNF, because I intend to come back to it, but it'll probably be in small installments.)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ron S

    A wide ranging look at television from the brilliant and idiosyncratic author of "Have you seen--?" and "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." Some may not like Thomson's snark, but it works for me, and even when I disagree with him I greatly enjoy the force of his well stated arguments. Screens are everywhere, and in one way or another most glue ourselves to them for great swathes of each day. What has that meant? Thomson makes for an entertaining and thoughtful guide. Geoff Dyer puts it n A wide ranging look at television from the brilliant and idiosyncratic author of "Have you seen--?" and "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." Some may not like Thomson's snark, but it works for me, and even when I disagree with him I greatly enjoy the force of his well stated arguments. Screens are everywhere, and in one way or another most glue ourselves to them for great swathes of each day. What has that meant? Thomson makes for an entertaining and thoughtful guide. Geoff Dyer puts it neatly in a back-jacket quote: "The greatest writer about the big screen has now written a defining book about the small screen."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Christopher McQuain

    Unfocused musings, many loose links and rickety connections, but reads mostly as engaging, open, conversational, if ultimately not of as much consequence as it wants to be. Extra 1/2 star for wonderful design; the photos, layout, font, and even paper stock added a rare degree of tactile engagement beyond the words.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David Weigel

    Didn't expect a straightforward history of TV from Thomson, but definitely expected richer insights and less repetition. (It's like he made a bet with that he could can cram in more Brian Williams references than any author before or since.) Really good on the pre-history of TV, gets shallow and uninteresting as it moves on to the late 20th century. Didn't expect a straightforward history of TV from Thomson, but definitely expected richer insights and less repetition. (It's like he made a bet with that he could can cram in more Brian Williams references than any author before or since.) Really good on the pre-history of TV, gets shallow and uninteresting as it moves on to the late 20th century.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    Not a biography, not a history -- let's face it, either of those would be too big for a single book. Instead, what David Thomson has done is to apply his movie-watching muscles to watching TV and the book consists of some long essays on the subject. This is the first book I have read of Thomson's, after hearing for many years of his excellent writing on movies. He reminds me of Clive James, whose most recent work is coincidentally Play All, about binge watching various TV series. I can never res Not a biography, not a history -- let's face it, either of those would be too big for a single book. Instead, what David Thomson has done is to apply his movie-watching muscles to watching TV and the book consists of some long essays on the subject. This is the first book I have read of Thomson's, after hearing for many years of his excellent writing on movies. He reminds me of Clive James, whose most recent work is coincidentally Play All, about binge watching various TV series. I can never resist Clive James, even though his frequent digressions on the attractiveness of this actress or that can become tiresome. Thomson also has this quirk. Still, I kept thinking about Thomson's discussions of All in the Family, Bill Cosby (the man and the show), The Fugitive, the early years of television drama (most of which were not recorded or were recorded over to save money), even days and now weeks after finishing the book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Splendid. In my life so far, I have for better or worse, spent more time watching television than I have composing, playing trombone, spending time with friends, and, probably, reading. Some of those hours I consider well-spent, but the majority I begrudge the medium. Thomson puts them all into perspective: a perspective that includes familiar friends and more than a few strangers. His assertion that television always only wants to be on is a potent one, and in this era when our national obsessi Splendid. In my life so far, I have for better or worse, spent more time watching television than I have composing, playing trombone, spending time with friends, and, probably, reading. Some of those hours I consider well-spent, but the majority I begrudge the medium. Thomson puts them all into perspective: a perspective that includes familiar friends and more than a few strangers. His assertion that television always only wants to be on is a potent one, and in this era when our national obsession with the tube has finally endangered our political system, a very good book to have read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Owen Symes

    The book is well written and contains a lot of interesting information and pithy observations. It's marred, however, by a lot of pop psychology and citationless pontificating. For instance, in the chapter "By the Numbers", he says: "A very frightening prospect in a culture of electronic screens is the power going *off*, depriving us of all those comforting services in on-ness. How long would such a breakdown last before panic set in?" I suspect the power has gone out for an extended period of ti The book is well written and contains a lot of interesting information and pithy observations. It's marred, however, by a lot of pop psychology and citationless pontificating. For instance, in the chapter "By the Numbers", he says: "A very frightening prospect in a culture of electronic screens is the power going *off*, depriving us of all those comforting services in on-ness. How long would such a breakdown last before panic set in?" I suspect the power has gone out for an extended period of time somewhere in the developed world. How did people react to their TVs being inaccessible for a long duration? That's a question with an empirical answer. Elsewhere he writes, in the chapter "Commercials": "In many countries that say they have state-authorized broadcasting,...the media have become distorting instruments of propaganda, or worse. This has not happened in Britain, despite anxieties and pressure from people as varied as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, who felt the system [of the BBC] was unfair." This may or may not be true, but he provides no sources on this assertion. What studies have been done regarding the possible slants or biases of the BBC? I have a hard time believing any institution doesn't have some kind of bias, but I can't check the background here because he cites nothing. Nevertheless, the book does have poignant observations. For example, in the chapter titled "Gently 'On': A New Age of Television People", he writes: "So, the business says, well, the case of the single mother who loses her car and then her house is not really entertaining or constructive. Understood, but then ask yourself carefully about the honesty or responsibility in offering other, fanciful stories for *her* entertainment (in the halfway house, if she's lucky). And then recognize how deeply this kind of entertainment is bound up with the economy that has turned this woman into a victim, simply by virtue of the advertising that sustains the shows. Yes, we are expected to separate the one from the other, but how are we to do that without enforcing unreal divisions in our own experience?" This is an excellent point about the distorting effect that the narratives television chooses to tell can have on our perception. Although, again, he doesn't cite actual studies or monographs fleshing this out further. Surely some sociologists or psychologists have actually studied the effects of TV - and surely these studies could have informed or bolstered the author's jeremiads. Finally, I found it irritating that his "Note on Sources" was little more than a brief assurance that they, in fact, exist...somewhere...perhaps over the rainbow? Sometimes he lists books he considers to be solid in one way or another (although not how a particular book was incorporated into his own work), but other times he waxes poetic when that is just not called for. When discussing sources for his chapter "Policeman, Save My Life," he references some books, but spends most of the paragraph listing *fiction* as "the best commentary on crime and police, murder and justice" - citing Dickens and Dostoyevsky. It may well be that these titans of the past have not been bested in their portrayal of the police, but that has little to do with *how police are portrayed on the television screen*. Books discussing the specific history of cop shows, their political influence, their psychological influence, their accuracy, their production, their propaganda value...these are sources to be discussed. The greats of 19th century fiction have no place here. So, overall it was a very frustrating book to read because the author is a very talented writer with an interesting perspective who obviously has spent a lot of time studying television, but the work itself proved little more than a pile of opinions. Having an opinion is unavoidable, but throwing it out into the public in a work of nonfiction requires evidence, which this book sorely lacked.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Christian Hamaker

    4.5 stars, rounded down rather than up in this case, just to make sure no one thinks this book is perfect. But it's pretty great - the best Thomson I've read outside of his "Biographical Dictionary of Film" and "Have You Seen?" I haven't watched network series in years, and I don't have cable. But the book covers shows that long predate my birth and highlights programs that aired (mostly on pay TV) after I stopped watching. The fact that Thomson's observations land over and over again despite al 4.5 stars, rounded down rather than up in this case, just to make sure no one thinks this book is perfect. But it's pretty great - the best Thomson I've read outside of his "Biographical Dictionary of Film" and "Have You Seen?" I haven't watched network series in years, and I don't have cable. But the book covers shows that long predate my birth and highlights programs that aired (mostly on pay TV) after I stopped watching. The fact that Thomson's observations land over and over again despite all that is surely the sign of some shared appreciation of the medium and its cultural impact, even when I didn't agree with Thomson's overall verdict on a series. ("Friends"? Really? I *still* don't get that show's appeal - it took off right as I tuned out of most network TV - and I guess I never will.)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Pug

    At 100 pages in, I finally gave up on this book. I thought maybe it was a slow starter... nope, turns out it was a boring book. The author thought he was amusing and clever, but he was just far too wordy.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jack

    Classic Thomson. Really an extended, very thoughtful essay/meditation about the medium.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Warren

    Probably closer to a 3.5, but reading this with Nixonland made for an interesting pair.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    A lot of words are used to say absolutely nothing.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mark Smith

    A lot of research went into this. It was very good bringing back info from a lot of the old shows but it was more philosophical than I would have liked.

  14. 5 out of 5

    PottWab Regional Library

    O

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lee Barry

    The less I watch TV the more I am interested in it. After reading the book, I realize how much we have evolved with it. TV has defined culture to this point, with Trump punctuating it. The internet will have similar effects in 50 years.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rob Christopher

    Idiosyncratic and fascinating; and if it seems to wander here and there, well, doesn't television do that itself? Idiosyncratic and fascinating; and if it seems to wander here and there, well, doesn't television do that itself?

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

  18. 5 out of 5

    Krista

  19. 4 out of 5

    Vienna Zhu

  20. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Valladares

  21. 5 out of 5

    Eliza A.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Darren

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline Reid

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dennis G

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tigh

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kale Gaston

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ben Keightley

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katherine

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joan Adams

  30. 5 out of 5

    Will Pfeifer

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