Eds. Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 352 pages. $32.95, Paperback.
Together, editors Jason Jacobs, an Associate Professor of Film and Television at the University of Queensland, Australia, and Steven Peacock, a reader in Film and Television Aesthetics at the University of Hertfordshire, present a volume of essays which convincingly argues that the discipline of Television Studies would benefit from a discussion of style and aesthetics. As they note, “academic work on television remains, for the most part, entrenched in theoretical frameworks” (2). Building on the work of Jeremy Butler’s Television Style (Routledge, 2010) and Gibbs and Pye’s Close-Up series, Jacobs and Peacock maintain that television studies must address the role of aesthetics and style in the production, reception, and distribution of television programs; they note that “television is as capable as film of creating expressive richness in moments that are at once fleeting, demonstrative and dramatically declamatory, climatic, or seemingly inconsequential” (6). While their position is not without controversy, this volume of essays by American and international television scholars demonstrates the importance of style, aesthetics, and textual analysis in evaluating television as a cultural medium and form of art.
Jacobs and Peacock seek to elicit debate and dialogue between the essays and in the reader: “the collection,” they note, “forms an invitation to talk and think about television aesthetics and style both more widely and more closely” (11). They organize the book in four parts: conceptual debates, the aesthetics and style of television comedy, critical analyses of television drama, and non-fiction and history. This division allows readers to peruse those areas that are most pertinent to their interests and scholarship; it also [End Page 63] reflects a commitment to rethinking how television studies has been organized in the past. Moreover, the book’s structure both acknowledges the need for theoretical debates about how television aesthetics can be incorporated into the discipline and illustrates how those theories can be applied to analyses of key genres within television production such as dramas and comedies.
The first section on conceptual debates brings together essays from key television scholars like Sarah Cardwell, Jason Mittell, Brett Mills, and Deborah L. Jarmillo. Cardwell’s essay in many ways sets the tone for the book, as she outlines the various positions in support of and opposition to the idea of focusing on aesthetics in the study of television. She champions the idea of “television aesthetics” despite the views of some television scholars whom she deems “skeptical” because they “fear that aspects of aesthetics are reactionary, harkening back to old methods and values that have no place in the study of a popular, mass medium” (25). For Cardwell, television aesthetics expands the focus of the discipline and offers challenging and provocative new avenues of study that incorporate the study of television with philosophy, thus allowing for new interpretative models to develop and enriching existing modes of analysis. Mittell’s essay offers a theoretical model to consider as he looks at the series The Wire and Breaking Bad, which, he notes, “are currently atop my shifting personal list of best all-time television,” (47). In commending the complex narrative strategies employed by these two series, Mittell acknowledges the role his own personal taste plays to argue that television aesthetics must account for the individual tastes of critics, scholars, and regular viewers. He points out that The Wire relies on ‘zero degree style’ and Breaking Bad is built around “a maximum degree style through kinetic visuals, bold sounds, and unpredictable storytelling form” (49). For Mittell, these series display the various modes of storytelling at work in this era of complex serial television, an era which, he astutely argues, requires a discussion of stylistic forms in order to better understand the myriad changes in contemporary television. Brett Mills’ essay focuses on how the word ‘cinematic’ has been used to describe new forms of television and asks what it means to apply that word to the medium of television. As Mills shows, many of the new shows described as cinematic rely on new technologies of production, distribution, and exhibition in order to differentiate television from...