restricted access An Introduction to the Philosophy of TV Noir
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AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF TV NOIR Steven M. Sanders Television is the definitive medium of popular culture. With its mass audience , TV has become indispensable for transmitting the legacy of film noir and producing new forms of noir. The Philosophy of TV Noir was conceived in the belief that the themes, styles, and sensibilities offilmnoir are preserved even as they are transformed in a variety of television series from the mid1950s to the present. No doubt readers can identify the principal characters and describe numerous episodes of many of the television series discussed in this book. But while one's knowledge of TV noir may be extensive in this respect, it may be less so when it comes to understanding the philosophical ideas presupposed and reflected by such programming. For, in addition to its importance as a cultural phenomenon, noir television is particularly valuable in dramatizing situations and experiences that raise philosophical questions about how to live, what kind ofperson one should be, and what, ifanything, gives meaning to life. This is where philosophical explanations are most helpful. The essays in this volume were written to stimulate and engage intelligent nonspecialist readers and to enliven discussion about such themes as alienation, nihilism, personal identity, and autonomy. These topics will be timely as long as crime, freedom, heroism, and anxiety are part ofthe human condition. In this introductory essay I want to discuss the nature, scope, exemplary instances, and philosophical dimensions of TV noir and to provide an overview of the volume. From Film Noir to TV Noir Television noir is historically and conceptually related to film noir, and it has long been a matter of dispute whether the latter is best described as a 2 Steven M. Sanders remarkable cycle that began in the early 1940s and lasted until nearly the end of the 1950s, a distinctive visual style with roots in German expressionist cinema and French surrealism, a highly fatalistic sensibility and point of view reflecting American hard-boiled fiction, or all of these. Various "noir wars" or controversies over the definition of film noir have dominated academic discussions for decades, and the concept of TV noir itself bears the inherited scars of this battle over noirs elucidation.1 Obviously, if there are disagreements about the concept of film noir, they will to some extent infiltrate what contributors to this volume say about the application of that concept to television. TV noir does not constitute a period or movement in the way that classic film noir does. Nor is it simply a programming trend like reality television. Instead, it represents an ever-changing adaptation and extension of the themes and styles of its influential film predecessors, updated, to be sure, by technological innovations. Its multiple associations with police procedural, crime dramas, private detective series, psychological thrillers, espionage and foreign intrigue serials, and science fiction programs prevent a reduction to a single genre. Much of the style and many of the themes of the TV noir programs discussed by philosophers,filmhistorians, and other scholars in this volume have a source in, and trace out the implications of, those noir movies from the classic period of the 1940s and '50s that introduced us to a postwar world of crime and violence, alienation, estrangement, and existential crisis. Angst, absurdity, dread, and death—these were central to the existentialist philosophy that swept across Europe and came to America in the aftermath of World War II, and to the noir filmmakers, many of whom (like Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Fritz Lang) were Austrian or German emigres. They went into the studio and produced gripping dramas with a psychological edge and at least some element of crime, either actual or imagined.2 Some were meditations on anguish; others, like The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) and The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956), chronicled robberies, heists, criminal capers, and big scores; still others provided an anatomy of those shadowfiguresofthe noir demimonde: the killers and con artists, misfits and outsiders, femme fatales, corrupt cops, and bought-and-paid-for politicians, the criminal types who menaced, and the police detectives and private eyes who tracked them down. By the 1960s, American filmmaking was increasingly involved "in creating the unique or spectacular," writes R. Barton Palmer. "One of the casualties ofthis revisionism was the film noir." Nevertheless, "popular taste An Introduction to the Philosophy ofTVNoir 3 for noir narrative has never waned since its advent in the 1940s."3 Some of the more noteworthy achievements of the...


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Subject Headings

  • Detective and mystery television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
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