How To Watch Television
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
Download PDF (174.7 KB)
Title Page, Copyright
Download PDF (65.2 KB)
Download PDF (148.1 KB)
Download PDF (53.3 KB)
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. The eagerness with which the contribu-tors jumped aboard is testimony to the commitment of each to improving media ...
Introduction: An Owner’s Manual for Television
Download PDF (112.7 KB)
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, and the new remote control may take some getting used to, but who ...
I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style
1 Homicide: Realism
Download PDF (117.8 KB)
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 employed by the show to create its feeling of authenticity....
2 House: Narrative Complexity
Download PDF (107.0 KB)
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 In the 2000s, some U.S. dramatic television entertained its audiences with in-...
3 Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation
Download PDF (116.5 KB)
Abstract: Remaking foreign programs is a common strategy for American televi-sion producers, but we must consider the contexts of each nation’s industrial prac-tices 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 contrast-ing norms of scheduling and serial formats help explain the differences in both sto-...
4 Mad Men: Visual Style
Download PDF (214.4 KB)
Abstract: Through a detailed examination of how the visual look of Mad Men con-veys 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 Much has been written about the look of Mad Men (AMC, 2007–present)—...
5 Nip/Tuck: Popular Music
Download PDF (156.2 KB)
Abstract: Most analyses of television programs focus on a program’s visual and nar-rative 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.Nip/Tuck’s (FX, 2003–2010) pilot episode featured an extended sequence in ...
6 Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television
Download PDF (152.8 KB)
Abstract: While critics of_ten condemn children’s television as a hyper-commercial and lowbrow electronic babysitter, they of_ten 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 with more sophistication and intelligence than might appear at first glance. ...
7 The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling
Download PDF (117.5 KB)
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 medi-um’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, and thus illuminating how the program’s story structures and ...
8 Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy
Download PDF (107.9 KB)
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 ap-proach of Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!, connecting it to the history of metacomedy as playing with comedic form with ref_lexivity and ambiguity....
II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics
9 24: Challenging Stereotypes
Download PDF (119.5 KB)
Abstract: Critical discussions about television’s patterns of representation some-times devolve into reductive assessments of “positive” or “negative,” “good” or “bad” images. In this essay, Evelyn Alsultany describes how the action-drama 24employed innovative strategies to avoid stereotypes of Arab/Muslim terrorists, but argues that sympathetic portrayals of individuals won’t alleviate television’s consis-...
10 The Amazing Race: Global Othering
Download PDF (121.2 KB)
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. Jona-than Gray applies a postcolonialist critique to the show’s images and characters, finding plenty to criticize, while also pointing to moments that suggest the poten-...
11 The Cosby Show: Representing Race
Download PDF (119.8 KB)
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.On April 30, 1992, I tuned in to watch the last episode of The Cosby Show (NBC, ...
12 The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings
Download PDF (153.7 KB)
Abstract: The television sitcom is typically considered a conservative form that reaf-firms 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, Quinn Miller shows how textual and in-...
13 Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences
Download PDF (113.7 KB)
Abstract: In this examination of the highly successful Spanish-language program Eva Luna, Hector Amaya argues for the politically progressive potential of the tele-novela as a serial melodrama. Ultimately, however, he critiques Eva Luna’s failure to meaningfully engage with contemporary topics of relevance to Latino audiences.The telenovela Eva Luna (2010–2011) marks a new direction for Univision’s pri-...
14 Glee / House Hunters International: Gay Narratives
Download PDF (157.9 KB)
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, we can see how media construct messages of optimism and hope that can have powerful im-...
15 Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism
Download PDF (129.6 KB)
Abstract: Looking at how Grey’s Anatomy’s 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 discrimi-nation and power imbalances, and thus offers a more nuanced set of representa-Contemporary entertainment television of_ten tells stories of professionally ac-...
16 Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing
Download PDF (109.1 KB)
Abstract: One of the most popular shows among young audiences in its day, Jer-sey 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, we can see how the series both transgresses and reinforces traditional social norms....
III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest
17 30 Days: Social Engagement
Download PDF (129.2 KB)
Abstract: While we of_ten 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 televi-sion traditions as analyzed in an episode personifying the illegal immigration de-bate, we can see the possibilities and limitations of socially activist programming ...
18 America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor
Download PDF (143.2 KB)
Abstract: Reality competitions have emerged as one of the most popular and preva-lent 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 America’s Next Top Model (UPN, 2003–2006; CW, 2006–present) is a reality se-...
19 Family Guy: Undermining Satire
Download PDF (136.8 KB)
Abstract: With its abrasive treatment of topics like race, religion, and gender, Fam-ily 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 ca-ters to the tastes of TV’s prized youth demographic, yet compromises its satiric The Family Guy episode “I Dream of Jesus” (October 5, 2008) begins with the ...
20 Fox & Friends: Political Talk
Download PDF (131.8 KB)
Abstract: That Fox News is slanted conservative has passed from criticism into tru-ism 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. Jeffrey P. Jones shows how the long-running Fox & Friends turns the morning talk format on its head, performing an “ideological, of_ten hysterical view ...
21 M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy
Download PDF (128.2 KB)
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, and how we might look at the program’s legacy ...
22 Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum
Download PDF (127.3 KB)
Abstract: Throughout its history as a mass medium, network television strove for wide appeal, while also occasionally courting controversy. In this look at contem-porary sitcom Parks and Recreation, Heather Hendershot considers how television might still function as a site for negotiating controversial topics and modeling civic engagement, even in an era of niche programming when there seems to be less and ...
23 Star Trek: Serialized Ideology
Download PDF (156.5 KB)
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 by using two episodes from the Star Trek franchise to ...
24 The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia
Download PDF (133.8 KB)
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 contro-The Wonder Years (ABC, 1988–1993) recounts the adolescence of Kevin Arnold ...
IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures
25 Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News
Download PDF (123.7 KB)
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 of_ten-ignored realm of tabloid news via the inf_luential and still-popular land-mark Entertainment Tonight. Petersen’s account highlights how scheduling prac-tices, regulation, and ownership can all have powerful impacts on a wide range ...
26 I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer
Download PDF (108.7 KB)
Abstract: Of_ten 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 mo-ments in establishing labor practices and production norms in the early days of ...
27 Modern Family: Product Placement
Download PDF (128.9 KB)
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, the narrative of which conspicuously centered on Apple’s iPad just days be-...
28 Monday Night Football: Brand Identity
Download PDF (143.3 KB)
Abstract: As one of American television’s longest-running and most successful pri-metime programs, Monday Night Football demonstrates the central role that sports plays for the medium. Victoria Johnson charts the history of MNF, its role in estab-lishing both ABC and the NFL, and its continuing importance on ESPN and in the Early in the fall 2011 season of ESPN’s Monday Night Football (2005–present), a ...
29 NYPD Blue: Content Regulation
Download PDF (140.6 KB)
Abstract: Studies of regulation and policy of_ten 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 “po-licing” controversial content, and thus reveals how the politics of regulation are in-The critically acclaimed series NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993–2005) had a remarkably ...
30 Onion News Network: Flow
Download PDF (132.1 KB)
Abstract: The “f_low” of television segments has long been understood as fundamen-tal 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 f_low has shif_ted emphasis to brand identity and catering to audience taste, now that convenience technologies such as the DVR ...
31 The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes
Download PDF (119.8 KB)
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 ex-amines an example of both, the American remake of 1960s British “cult classic” The Prisoner, and suggests why such “neocult” programs can fail to capture the appeal How should we analyse TV shows that have taken on cult status? Of_ten science ...
32 The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television
Download PDF (144.9 KB)
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, exploring how the program’s legacy lives on As with any other art form, television history is in large part an assemblage of ...
V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life
33 Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video
Download PDF (136.6 KB)
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 cover-age and other online videos as raw material for satirically remixed and reconfigured Amidst the sights and sounds of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Usher’s “OMG,” ...
34 Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content
Download PDF (203.3 KB)
Abstract: Being a fan of a TV program in the convergence era increasingly means engaging “of_f_icial” ancillary content such as podcasts and webisodes produced in conjunction with the series itself. Suzanne Scott’s examination of such “textual ex-pansions” of Battlestar Galactica shows how ancillary content enriches fan experi-ence while also channeling participation in ways that best suit the industry’s finan-...
35 Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste
Download PDF (110.1 KB)
Abstract: While all commercial television has an investment in promoting con-sumerism 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 Giadauni00A0De Laurentiis as an instance of lifestyle television, per-American television is, with rare exceptions, a commercial medium supported ...
36 Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies
Download PDF (122.9 KB)
Abstract: While television is of_ten thought of as a predigital mass medium dis-tinct 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, and online extensions to highlight how digital media functions as a central theme, a style of ...
37 It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television
Download PDF (118.0 KB)
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 televi-sion program that barely remains accessible—and may never have made much of ...
38 One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling
Download PDF (118.7 KB)
Abstract: Few genres are as associated with the television medium as the soap op-era, which has populated daytime schedules for decades, of_ten 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 high-light the unique narrative possibilities of soap operas and call attention to what ...
39 Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing
Download PDF (136.7 KB)
Abstract: Television criticism usually addresses “what” TV is watched, and of_ten “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 Watching an imported or translated text on television is an increasingly ordinary ...
40 The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics
Download PDF (169.4 KB)
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 The comic book industry now functions as Hollywood’s research and devel-...
Download PDF (100.2 KB)
Download PDF (638.1 KB)
Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2013