July 19, 2007

(+++) TV OR NOT TV?

Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television. By Lee Siegel. Basic Books. $15.95.

      Does television matter anymore? Yes, it is pervasive, but younger TV viewers have taken the fine art of using it as background to new heights, often doing homework and sending text messages (and maybe doing other things as well) while the TV is on. In the days when Marshall McLuhan designated TV a “cool medium” (in contrast to radio, a “hot medium”), the method of interaction (or lack thereof) between the tube and the audience seemed highly significant, tied into the type of shared experience that millions had at any given time and thus to the direction in which society (American society, anyway) seemed to be going.

      But the “shared experience” value of TV has diminished to the point of vanishing. There are no longer only three networks; there are few programs that huge numbers of people watch at the same time, as opposed to on a recorded basis with commercials (and often portions of the shows) skipped – the Super Bowl and the finales of “Friends” and “The Sopranos” are very much exceptions, not the rule. And yet there are some critics, such as Lee Siegel, who persist in taking the medium very seriously indeed. Siegel has done so in Harper’s, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic – from the last of which the essays in this book come. Not Remotely Controlled collects some of Siegel’s work written between 2003 and 2006, on such subjects as cop shows, sitcoms, drama, cartoons, documentaries, news and so-called reality shows.

      The essays are most interesting when they raise major societal concerns from an underlying assumption that TV doesn’t just matter – it continues to have huge importance in society. “The funny thing about television is that it distracts you as you watch it,” writes Siegel in an essay that is purportedly about SpongeBob SquarePants but that barely mentions the anarchic cartoon character. “It doesn’t hold your attention, it eases it. …Television stills your mind and lets it roam, as if the mind were a crying infant that the television took in its glowing arms and soothed so that it could sleep and dream.” This is excellent writing – and profoundly wrong in terms of how many people, especially younger people, use TV today. But accept Siegel’s worldview for a while and he gets into interesting territory, such as “the extent to which television cultivates distraction into a new kind of discipline.”

      Siegel’s well-turned phrases and somewhat academic overview of TV are the best part of this book. “CSI” and “Law & Order,” he writes, are “a kind of medical porn” on one level, but also “offer the illusion of control after great painful upheaval.” Morning news shows “are often studies in orchestrated humility and rigged self-effacement.” As for reality shows, “Only in America could reality become a trend.” But the book bogs down when it focuses on the minutiae of individual programs at specific points in time – and since Siegel is, after all, a columnist, that is what the book does for most of its length. One essay opens, “Brokaw is leaving. Rather is leaving. Jennings is obviously about to leave.” How dated can you get? (Well, it made sense in December 2004.) Another opens, “After weeks of the media pandering to the Christian right in re Ashley, Terri, and John Paul, there suddenly comes Revelations. (This was clear in April 2005.) And then there are the serious analyses of such shows as “The New Kojak,” “Weeds” and “Stump the Schwab,” and such documentaries as “The Children of Leningradsky” and “The Staircase.” If you don’t remember the programs Siegel discusses – and care about them and their possible (or possibly overstated) societal implications – then very little in this book will have meaning for you. Whether it should matter is a different issue. Siegel’s determination to take television seriously, even when wrongheaded, is a worthwhile attempt to come to terms with what TV does and means in our society today. And his writing is stylish and often pointed, even if readers who don’t recall details of trivial TV programming from the last five years will often be unable to get the points.

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