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How To Watch Television

Ethan Thompson

Publication Year: 2013

We all have opinions about the television shows we watch, but television criticism is about much more than simply evaluating the merits of a particular show and deeming it ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, criticism uses the close examination of a television program to explore that program’s cultural significance, creative strategies, and its place in a broader social context.
How to Watch Television brings together forty original essays from today’s leading scholars on television culture, writing about the programs they care (and think) the most about. Each essay focuses on a particular television show, demonstrating one way to read the program and, through it, our media culture. The essays model how to practice media criticism in accessible language, providing critical insights through analysis—suggesting a way of looking at TV that students and interested viewers might emulate. The contributors discuss a wide range of television programs past and present, covering many formats and genres, spanning fiction and non-fiction, broadcast and cable, providing a broad representation of the programs that are likely to be covered in a media studies course. While the book primarily focuses on American television, important programs with international origins and transnational circulation are also covered.

Addressing television series from the medium’s earliest days to contemporary online transformations of television, How to Watch Television is designed to engender classroom discussion among
television critics of all backgrounds.

Ethan Thompson is Associate Professor at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. He is the author of Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture, and co-editor of Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture, Television and American Culture, and Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York University Press, forthcoming).

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-viii

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pp. ix-x

Although only two names appear on this book’s spine, it truly was a team effort. Coordinating forty people to do anything is challenging, but getting forty busy academics to commit to a shared approach to writing and a tight schedule of deadlines seemed particularly daunting. ...

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Introduction: An Owner’s Manual for Television

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pp. 1-10

Imagine that you just purchased a brand new television, and inside the box, along with the remote, the Styrofoam packaging, and various cables, was this book: How to Watch Television. Would you bother to open the cellophane wrapper and read it? Sure, you might scan through the “quick start” guide for help with the connections, ...

I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

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1. Homicide: Realism

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pp. 13-21

Abstract: One of the most critically acclaimed but low-rated dramas in network television history, Homicide: Life on the Streets approached the cop show genre by trying to remain true to actual police work and life in Baltimore. Bambi Haggins explores this commitment to realism by investigating the narrative and stylistic techniques ...

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2. House: Narrative Complexity

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pp. 22-29

Abstract: In her analysis of the medical/procedural program House, Amanda Lotz shows how a procedural program can exhibit narrative complexity and innovative techniques of character development. Lotz examines how a single episode draws upon a variety of atypical storytelling strategies to convey meaning and dramatize a central theme of the series: “everybody lies.” ...

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3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation

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pp. 30-37

Abstract: Remaking foreign programs is a common strategy for American television producers, but we must consider the contexts of each nation’s industrial practices to fully understand such remakes. Christine Becker looks closely at both the British original and the American remake of Life on Mars to explore how contrasting norms of scheduling ...

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4. Mad Men: Visual Style

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pp. 38-46

Abstract: Through a detailed examination of how the visual look of Mad Men conveys the show’s meanings and emotional affect, Jeremy G. Butler provides a model for how to perform a close analysis of television style for a landmark contemporary series. See our companion website, howtowatchtelevision.com for more images and a video clip to supplement this piece. ...

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5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music

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pp. 47-55

Abstract: Most analyses of television programs focus on a program’s visual and narrative construction, but neglect the vital element of sound that is crucial to any show’s style and meaning. Ben Aslinger listens closely to Nip/Tuck's use of music, exploring how it helps shape the program’s aesthetics and cultural representations. ...

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6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television

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pp. 56-64

Abstract: While critics often condemn children’s television as a hyper-commercial and lowbrow electronic babysitter, they often neglect to analyze how such programs actually engage young viewers. By looking at the narrative structure of Phineas & Ferb, Jason Mittell suggests that children’s television can engage its audience ...

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7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling

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pp. 65-73

Abstract: The Sopranos is one of television’s most acclaimed series, ushering in the rise of the twenty-first-century primetime serial and helping to elevate the medium’s cultural status. But Sean O’Sullivan problematizes our understanding of the show’s seriality, highlighting episodes that function more as short stories than as chapters in a novel, ...

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8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy

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pp. 74-82

Abstract: Sketch comedy is a staple of American television, with styles ranging from mainstream to alternative and even experimental forms that target a young, predominantly male audience. Jeffrey Sconce explores the highly experimental approach of Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!, ...

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

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9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes

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pp. 85-93

Abstract: Critical discussions about television’s patterns of representation sometimes devolve into reductive assessments of “positive” or “negative,” “good” or “bad” images. In this essay, Evelyn Alsultany describes how the action-drama 24 employed innovative strategies to avoid stereotypes of Arab/Muslim terrorists, ...

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10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering

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pp. 94-102

Abstract: The Amazing Race is one of the most successful reality shows in American television history, and arguably no other program has spent so much time outside of the United States or introduced U.S. audiences to so many non-Americans. Jonathan Gray applies a postcolonialist critique to the show’s images and characters, ...

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11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race

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pp. 103-111

Abstract: Few sitcom families in television history have been as widely loved as the wholesome, wealthy, black family of The Cosby Show. Christine Acham re-examines the politics of The Cosby Show in the historical context of the Reagan-Bush era, in conjunction with the comedic persona and politics of star/creator Bill Cosby. ...

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12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings

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pp. 112-120

Abstract: The television sitcom is typically considered a conservative form that reaffirms the status quo. In particular, network era sitcoms’ normative constructions of gender and sexuality are assumed to be antithetical to queer representation. In this examination of an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show informed by historiography, gender studies, and transgender criticism, ...

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13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences

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pp. 121-129

Abstract: In this examination of the highly successful Spanish-language program Eva Luna, Hector Amaya argues for the politically progressive potential of the telenovela as a serial melodrama. Ultimately, however, he critiques Eva Luna’s failure to meaningfully engage with contemporary topics of relevance to Latino audiences. ...

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14. Glee / House Hunters International: Gay Narratives

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pp. 130-138

Abstract: One key cultural function of television is to represent different identities, especially marginalized groups; here Ron Becker considers one interesting type of contemporary gay representation. By connecting seemingly disparate texts of Glee, House Hunters International, and the online It Gets Better movement, ...

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15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism

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pp. 139-147

Abstract: Looking at how Grey’s Anatomy representations of gender and race go beyond simple notions of positive or negative images, Elana Levine argues that the hit medical drama serves as a fantasy space for imagining a world free of discrimination and power imbalances, and thus offers a more nuanced set of representations than might first appear. ...

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16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing

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pp. 148-156

Abstract: One of the most popular shows among young audiences in its day, Jersey Shore raises numerous questions about boundaries of taste and quality in both “real” behaviors and television. Susan Douglas argues that by looking closely at how the show addresses its audience with an assumed ironic distance, ...

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

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17. 30 Days: Social Engagement

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pp. 159-167

Abstract: While we often think of reality television as exploitative or sensational, this essay explores a reality show with an explicit agenda of social engagement and education: 30 Days. By looking at the show’s ties to documentary and reality television traditions as analyzed in an episode personifying the illegal immigration debate, ...

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18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor

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pp. 168-176

Abstract: Reality competitions have emerged as one of the most popular and prevalent formats on contemporary television, typified here by America’s Next Top Model. Laurie Ouellette argues that through the lens of social theory, we can see how such programs enact a version of contemporary labor practices, helping to train viewers as workers within new economic realities. ...

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19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire

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pp. 177-185

Abstract: With its abrasive treatment of topics like race, religion, and gender, Family Guy runs afoul of critics but is defended by fans for “making fun of everything.” Nick Marx examines how the program’s rapid-fire stream of comic references caters to the tastes of TV’s prized youth demographic, yet compromises its satiric potential. ...

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20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk

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pp. 186-194

Abstract: That Fox News is slanted conservative has passed from criticism into truism and branding strategy. However, there is danger in simply accepting this view and neglecting critical analysis of what continues to be the most highly rated cable news network. ...

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21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy

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pp. 195-203

Abstract: Long hailed as one of the most groundbreaking and politically engaged sitcoms, M*A*S*H is a key text from 1970s television’s “turn toward relevance.” Noel Murray, writing in a journalistic style for the popular online criticism site The A. V. Club,, discusses a distinctive episode from the series to highlight how the show used the past to talk about the present, ...

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22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum

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pp. 204-212

Abstract: Throughout its history as a mass medium, network television strove for wide appeal, while also occasionally courting controversy. In this look at contemporary sitcom Parks and Recreation, Heather Hendershot considers how television might still function as a site for negotiating controversial topics and modeling civic engagement, ...

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23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology

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pp. 213-222

Abstract: Fictional television, especially from the allegorical genre of science fiction, frequently offers commentary on contemporary events, inviting us to read a single episode as a critique of current affairs. However, Roberta Pearson cautions us not to decontextualize an episode from the larger scope of a series and its established characters and relationships ...

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24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia

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pp. 223-232

Abstract: One of the cultural functions of television is to serve as a site of social memory, constructing visions of the past for multiple generations. Daniel Marcus analyzes how the popular 1980s sitcom The Wonder Years remembers the 1960s, creating both nostalgia for and political commentary about a formative and controversial moment in American history. ...

IV.TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

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25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News

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pp. 235-243

Abstract: Much of the television schedule is taken up by programs that seem like “filler” to many critics, but here Anne Helen Petersen shines a light on the often-ignored realm of tabloid news via the influential and still-popular landmark Entertainment Tonight. ...

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26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer

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pp. 244-252

Abstract: Often hailed as a landmark series for a range of innovations, I Love Lucy can also be seen as groundbreaking for how it assembled its production staff and established the vital role of television’s writer-producer. Miranda Banks explores the history of Lucy’s production and creative personnel, connecting it with key moments in establishing labor practices ...

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27. Modern Family: Product Placement

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pp. 253-261

Abstract: Although television is overwhelmingly a commercial medium, audiences still expect boundaries between commercials and program content, particularly in narrative programming. Kevin Sandler examines an interesting case of product integration: the controversy that surrounded an episode of the hit sitcom Modern Family, ...

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28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity

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pp. 262-270

Abstract: As one of American television’s longest-running and most successful primetime programs, Monday Night Football demonstrates the central role that sports plays for the medium. Victoria Johnson charts the history of MNF, its role in establishing both ABC and the NFL, and its continuing importance on ESPN and in the digital era. ...

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29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation

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pp. 271-280

Abstract: Studies of regulation and policy often seem distinct from the analysis of television programming and content. But in this examination of the controversial series NYPD Blue, Jennifer Holt traces the show’s role in the FCC’s history of “policing” controversial content, ...

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30. Onion News Network: Flow

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pp. 281-289

Abstract: The “flow” of television segments has long been understood as fundamental to how viewers experience the medium and how programmers direct audience attention from one show to the next. In this look at the Onion News Network, Ethan Thompson examines how television’s flow has shifted emphasis ...

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31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes

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pp. 290-298

Abstract: Two television trends that have grown more prominent in recent years are American remakes of foreign series and the popularity of cult TV. Matt Hills examines an example of both, the American remake of 1960s British “cult classic” The Prisoner, and suggests why such “neocult” programs can fail ...

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32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television

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pp. 299-308

Abstract: Few programs in television history are as iconic as The Twilight Zone, which lingers in cultural memory as one of the medium’s most distinctive aesthetic and cultural peaks. Derek Kompare examines the show’s signature style and voice of its emblematic creator Rod Serling, ...

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

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33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video

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pp. 311-319

Abstract: Convergence culture has redefined television in many ways—from what devices we use to watch TV, to who can make TV and how it can be made. In this essay, David Gurney examines how The Gregory Brothers draw upon news coverage and other online videos as raw material ...

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34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content

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pp. 320-329

Abstract: Being a fan of a TV program in the convergence era increasingly means engaging “official” ancillary content such as podcasts and webisodes produced in conjunction with the series itself. Suzanne Scott’s examination of such “textual expansions” of Battlestar Galactica shows how ancillary content enriches fan experience ...

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35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste

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pp. 330-337

Abstract: While all commercial television has an investment in promoting consumerism in its audiences, few genres are as focused on the various dimensions of consumption as cooking shows. Michael Z. Newman analyzes Food Network’s Everyday Italian with Giada De Laurentiis as an instance of lifestyle television, ...

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36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies

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pp. 338-346

Abstract: While television is often thought of as a predigital mass medium distinct from online “new media,” contemporary television programs are frequently intertwined with transmedia digital contexts and practices. Louisa Stein examines Gossip Girl’s representations of digital technologies, advertising tie-ins, ...

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37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television

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pp. 347-354

Abstract: Though select television programs are celebrated in their time and later canonized via reruns on cable channels and in critical anthologies like this one, much television remains ephemeral. In this essay on a forgotten yet unique cooking show, Dana Polan provides a model for researching (and reconstructing) a television program ...

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38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling

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pp. 355-363

Abstract: Few genres are as associated with the television medium as the soap opera, which has populated daytime schedules for decades, often with the same shows running for more than the lifetimes of their characters. Abigail De Kosnik provides a long-term view of One Life to Live and the lifelong story of one character to highlight the unique narrative possibilities of soap operas ...

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39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing

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pp. 364-372

Abstract: Television criticism usually addresses “what” TV is watched, and often “who” watches, but “where” TV is watched is less commonly considered vital to understanding it. In this look at the anime program Samurai Champloo, Jiwon Ahn argues for the importance of “where” to the meanings and pleasures of texts which—like anime—circulate in television’s global flows. ...

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40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics

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pp. 373-382

Abstract: One of the key ways that television connects to other media is by adapting pre-existing properties from films, comics, and other formats. Henry Jenkins uses one of the most popular of such recent adaptations, The Walking Dead, to highlight the perils and possibilities of adaptations, and how tapping into pre-existing fan bases can pose challenges to television producers. ...


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pp. 383-390


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pp. 391-396

E-ISBN-13: 9780814729465
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814745311
Print-ISBN-10: 0814745318

Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Television programs -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Television programs -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Television programs -- United States.
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