- Television Cities by Charlotte Brunsdon
By Charlotte Brunsdon
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018, 221 pp.
Charlotte Brunsdon is certainly no stranger to television criticism, having contributed key works on soap opera, feminist reception, and crime drama. Her most recent book, Television Cities, continues to be interested in how texts herald viewers and is consistently guided by an awareness of gender and class, which historically have functioned to denigrate television in relation to film. Television Cities is an intervention that seeks to address the exclusion of television from discussions of moving-image representations of cities. For this reason, Brunsdon’s work is cautious of tendencies in television studies to distinguish “quality” or “prestige” city shows like The Sopranos (1999–2007), The Wire (2002–2008), and Breaking Bad (2008–2013), from “regular” television, which is typically not thought to be worthy of close analysis (124). Picking up on Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine’s observation in Legitimating Television (2012) that television tends to be considered “good” the more cinematic (and less televisual) that it becomes, Television Cities presents a gendered reading of “quality television” discourse, which argues that “prestige television” discourse is often a euphemism for “men’s television, a television emancipated from domesticity and the feminine” (124).
At the same time that Brunsdon critiques this discourse, she also argues that “prestige” shows such as The Wire “made feasible the idea of taking television cities seriously” (160). This, she points out, is an important corrective in “the significant and growing scholarship on the cinematic city [that] had seemed repeatedly to ignore the television city in a genealogy that jumped from the great 1920s city symphonies to the digital city” (160). “Television may not have been culturally prestigious in the twentieth century,” Brunsdon argues, “but that does not mean that it is without significance in the making and imagining of cities, particularly in the period of mass viewing on mainly national channels [from the 1950s to the 1980s]” (8). Television Cities’ strategy is to build on the momentum of contemporary “prestige television” scholarship at the same time that it offers an important corrective to prestige discourse and to work on audiovisual cities that, “for reasons of relative cultural prestige,” has largely excluded television from the discussion (160).
As a result, Television Cities is an intervention that inserts broadcast television into what Brunsdon calls the “recognizable chronology and set of nodal points” that have traditionally framed discussions of audiovisual cities within “studies of the Western cinematic city” or the post-millennial “media city” (7). In doing so, the project “seeks to challenge” (8) the dominance of the cinematic [End Page 96] city’s chronology that begins with the city symphonies, then “film noir, the location shooting of the 1950s and 1970s, new black cinemas, essay films, and the cities of migration” (7). Demonstrating how this trajectory skips over discussions of television’s engagement with cities, Brunsdon also identifies the exclusion of broadcast-era television in the chronology of “mediated and media cities” that has “its own nodal points including the rise of closed-circuit television (CCTV), the expansion of public screens, the networked citizen, and the digital home” (7).
While Brunsdon argues that television should be included in discussions of audiovisual cities, she also argues that it has qualities and characteristics that are uniquely and historically its own. Television’s seriality, its genres, as well as its specific production and reception practices across various public service and commercial registers distinguish and complicate television cities’ objects and approaches. Television Cities, as a result, does not claim to be comprehensive, but articulates itself as the beginning of an inquiry, ending with a call “to stimulate further scholarship on many other television cities” (164).
The book’s introduction usefully theorizes why television has been neglected in work on cities. Brunsdon makes the case that, “along with the refrigerator and the automobile,” television became “one of the holy trinity emblematic of twentieth-century domestic modernity” (4). She argues that TV’s association with “the suburb, the armchair, [and] the female viewer” (6) separated the medium and its content conceptually from cinema which was thought to be “the medium of...