Imagine bringing a cute little baby alligator home from the pet store only to see it grow into a giant 15-foot gator that takes over your house and dominates your daily life. That’s how David Thomson sees the history of television in his blockbuster new book, Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson, $34.95).
A recent Nielsen survey revealed that the average American watches more than five hours of television per day. Factor in the recommended eight hours for sleep (sounds high) and eight hours for work (sounds low), and the math says a majority of our free time is spent watching TV. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on a traditional full-size screen or through a streaming service on your computer, a tablet or the smartphone stuck in your back pocket. It’s all TV almost all the time, regardless of the platform.
So what are some of the unintended consequences of having 500 channels coming at us like a mudslide hurtling down a high Sierra burn area? Start with this unprecedented development, unthinkable just a decade ago: A reality-show star is now the presidential nominee of one of America’s two major political parties. He turned the presidential campaign into the ultimate reality show, complete with nonstop insults, graphic bragging about the size of his yuge penis and his "locker-room talk" about sexual assault, threats of arrest and imprisonment against his rivals, and the obligatory cliffhanger for the season finale: Will he or won’t he accept the election results?
Closer to home, the traditional Hollywood social and artistic hierarchy — film first, music second and TV a distant third — has been flipped on its head, with cutting-edge creativity and young talent flocking to TV while the film industry continues its decades-long, slow-motion creative collapse and loss of audience.
The overarching question as the TV universe expands like a mutant weed taking over our cultural and entertainment world: How the hell did we get from the black-and-white good guys–vs.–bad guys of Dragnet to the transgressive drama of Breaking Bad, from the conservative, all-American domestic humor of The Donna Reed Show to the progressive, transgender humor of Transparent?
And equally important: Where is TV going?
The illuminating answers can be found in Thomson’s deeply insightful, gracefully written, totally compelling new book. Plow through this 416-page anthropological monster and you will know all you need to know about the evolution of TV over the last 70 years and — more important — how and why it has assumed such a central position in our lives.
Indeed, there is no better indicator of TV’s emerging cultural primacy than the publication of Thomson’s book itself. He is, after all, the author of the seminal work The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, a must-have for any serious student of cinema. It contains more than 5,000 mini-biographies of actors, writers, producers, directors, agents and other film figures. Basically, anyone who ever made any kind of impact in the movies gets at least a few lines documenting their contributions. The on-screen stars and the off-screen giants get several pages or more.
That landmark book was first published in 1975 — it’s been revised and updated five times since — at a time when film was unchallenged as the 20th century’s foremost storytelling form. That’s a position it inherited from the novel, which dominated the early 20th century while film was finding its voice (literally) and its visual vocabulary.
But that was 41 years ago, and a lot has changed since then for anyone interested in telling stories by way of words and moving images. And like any smart critic, Thomson is following the crowd to where the action is.
“People in the acting, writing and directing fields who are ambitious and have talent and ideas would be crazy not to try to get into TV,” Thomson said in a recent interview. “Just look at the last 15 years. Through the long-form series, TV has regularly done stuff you would not dream of seeing on movie screens today.”
The list of recent groundbreaking, dramatically innovative TV shows is long and growing: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, True Detective and Breaking Bad are just a few of the most familiar brand names. But Thomson says there are plenty more to come, and they are sure to break new ground we can’t even imagine right now.
One of the many great things about Thomson’s book is that it does not take the traditional chronological approach to biography. There is no year-by-year listing of top shows, Emmy winners, etc.
Instead he uses a thematic approach, linking the early years of TV with current shows and exposing the connective tissue. He does this by dividing the book into two sections, labeled “The Medium” and “The Message.” But his observations are so trenchant and his stream-of-consciousness writing so entertaining that most of what he has to say would be right at home in either section.
Before taking us into the psychological dissection of what’s on TV tonight and why it’s on, he first makes his case that TV has become such a familiar, constant and comforting presence in our lives that we can no longer imagine life without it: “Every hotel room has one; there’s one by your hospital bed. So many threats of solitude or loneliness have a set at hand, like oxygen or the morphine button in that hospital. You get on a plane and the screen is embedded in the back of the seat in front of you. In prisons, cells have screens. (Why not in solitary?) ... People going places on the street are studying their hand screens. Grown-up children wander from room to room carrying their iPads; it is like an IV, and seems to be life-supporting. You see the cardboard and tent cities under freeway ramps where ‘derelicts’ have a set and the community has a battery to power it.”
Thomson, who lives in San Francisco, says he typically watches four hours of TV a day just for his own amusement. But in researching and writing the book he had to watch thousands of hours of old and new TV. While doing that he estimated that the total of all the TV programming produced in the last 70 years would take 5,000 years to watch.
That staggering figure gave him a jumping-off point to gaze into the future of TV: “Television isn’t just its own golden age of shows and stories and personalities. It’s the harbinger of the computer screen, the internet, your smartphone, the thumbnail that is tracking the Dow, not to mention the chip in your head that one day will play Mahler, observe the daily life of the ocelot or teach you Hungarian. Not to mention the screens to come in the next 5,000 years.”
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One of the most fascinating chapters involves the history of advertising on TV. He points out that marketers learned to sell products with arresting visual images backed up by short, pithy slogans like “The Real Thing,” “Think Different” and “Because I’m Worth It.”
With apologies to those mad men geniuses, Thomson’s pricy book is worth it because he thinks differently and has written the real thing when it comes to understanding the 500-pound gator in the room.