- HOW TO WATCH TELEVISION ed. by Tracy Floreani
Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell’s How to Watch Television is a collection of forty essays that use an exemplary episode (or a few such) of a single television [End Page 143] program to “make an argument about the [program’s] cultural significance” and, more importantly, to “make a broader argument about television and its relation to other cultural forces” (4); frequently, the results are tantalizing. The editors hope that How to Watch Television will provide readers with models of “different ways of watching, methods of looking at or making sense of television” (1) that will motivate them not only to “think critically about the television that [they] watch” (9) but also, potentially, to “write [their] own works of television criticism” (4). Their primary audience, then, is not scholars of television, who, presumably, already think and write critically about the medium; rather, it is students (most likely, undergraduates in media studies courses, but also newly-minted graduate students or even advanced high-schoolers) and, at one remove, their teachers.
To reach this audience, the editors requested contributors to write “accessibly for students and a general readership” (4). The essays produced under this editorial constraint appear deceptively simple. By design, they are shorter than texts “typically found in an academic journal or book” (4), despite including supplements of one or more illustrations and a list of further readings, and they usually relegate the names of other scholar-critics to endnotes sparingly used. Consequently, the essays resemble texts that advanced undergraduates or novice graduate students could reasonably be expected to produce as a course project. I very much like this idea in principle, and I can easily imagine assigning students a course project that asks them to imagine contributing a fresh chapter to a second edition of How to Watch Television. In practice, however, I found that even the best essays at times felt abridged, especially when broad claims hinged upon examples too few or too quickly discussed; this is not a quality I would want students to emulate in their writing.
Fortunately, How to Watch Television’s contributors were able, in spite and not because of the editors’ requirements, to convey a rich, scholarly knowledge of the selected programs and their aesthetic, cultural, political, industrial, and/or pragmatic contexts. Three contributions deserve special mention: Sean O’Sullivan’s “The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling,” which explores ways that the series violated conventions of serialism; Mittell’s “Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television,” which speculates about the pleasures that viewers, particularly children, can derive from strongly formulaic programs; and Miranda Banks’s “I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer,” which identifies one of the program’s legacies as the emergence of the “showrunner,” the purported “visionary” who “gives a series—and just as importantly, those who work for the series—a sense of structure and direction” (245). Other readers would undoubtedly highlight different essays based on personal preferences regarding the programs and topics discussed.
Before I conclude, two other points should be made that have bearing on other problematic editorial decisions. The forty-one programs featured (one essay covers two shows) certainly do not “span the medium’s entire history” (8), nor are they as “widely diverse and even eclectic” (7) as the editors believe. Let me be clear: I do not think it remotely possible for forty brief essays to capture the diversity of television programming from its roots in the 1920s to the present. But why, then, make the former claim, particularly when most of the featured programs are “contemporary” [End Page 144] by virtue of recent vintage (e.g., The Sopranos), ongoing production and/or syndication (e.g., Modern Family), or easy access via online content-streaming or DVDs (e.g., Star Trek)? And why make the latter claim when the ratio of fictive to mixed or non-fictive genres surely could have been less than 3:1 and—most surprisingly and regrettably for a book half-seriously characterized as a kind of “owner’s manual for how to watch TV” (1...