Primal Screen


Television is a box that accommodates practically anything we care to throw in, from lofty sociopolitical theories to disproportionately mean-spirited grudges, unnatural attachments to self-conscious detachment.

The one item that won’t fit, as a trio of recent TV-related tomes makes clear, is indifference; to have an opinion of television, however conflicted or disparaging, is to submit to its passive-aggressive power.

Satirist Jean-Philippe Toussaint addresses this directly in his whimsical, agreeably rambling slice of fractured modern life, Television. Both aptly and inappropriately titled, the novel follows an unnamed, uninspired French academic on sabbatical in Berlin as he does everything except what he came to the city to do—write a long-planned book about Titian. A sublimely sure-footed slacker, he’s concluded as the story begins that TV is the culprit behind his apparent writer’s block (he’s only managed to put down the first two words of his monograph). He thus pulls the plug in characteristically smug fashion: “Not that television ever held an especially important place in my life. No. On average, I watched maybe two hours a day (maybe less, but I’d rather err on the side of generosity, and not try to puff myself up with a virtuously low estimate).”

From that point on, he finds ways to both avoid writing and cast judgment on TV and TV watchers, and Toussaint divides Television between picaresque exploits (there’s a very funny sequence in which our antihero converses with the president of his grant foundation while publicly naked) and pointed, pompous observations about—what else—television. Doing without, it seems, gives the protag this privilege, but what he fails to notice—and what makes him such a painfully recognizable fraud—is that his existence without TV is as much a succession of disjointed, decontextualized images as the medium he holds himself so firmly above. Toussaint is in DeLillo territory here, of course, yet he sidesteps clinical dissection with warm, conspiratorial prose and the bittersweet compassion of a fellow TV junkie.

Christine Acham reveals a similar persuasion in Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power, an involving scholarly study of the resurgence of African American-themed TV shows in the late ’60s and ’70s. A genuine academic of the non-slacking variety (she’s an assistant professor of African American studies at UC Davis), Acham revisits beloved series of her youth—from Julia to Sanford and Son to Good Times to the short-lived, incendiary Richard Pryor Show—to shed light on the largely forgotten political agendas of their black casts and counter, when possible, the charges that the shows amounted to little more than updated minstrel shows.

She succeeds primarily by tapping into her own affection for such fare, and her meticulously researched and reasoned (but rarely dry) explication is all the more convincing for her unguarded identification with stars like Diahann Carroll and Esther Rolle: “Far from simply being disempowered cogs within the television machine, both actresses are examples of increasing black agency within the industry. . . . The actions of these women helped in opening up the concept of the television text beyond what was on the screen.” Though not quite the kind of uplift envisioned by Black Journal, an African American news program shown on public television that’s discussed in Revolution Televised‘s early chapters, the passionate resistance of these women endures in, among other places, Acham’s bold inquiry.

Passion is also in evidence in Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson, a massive, gruelingly fannish paean to Matt Groening’s iconic (if not yet geriatric) cash cow, but intellectual restraint is not. Turner approaches everybody’s favorite prime-time cartoon—”the most influential cultural enterprise of its time,” don’t you know—as if it were a ne-glected cult item marooned on some backwater public-access station, and the result, while sporadically insightful, is a histrionic harangue. He might have served the series better by inviting some of the like-minded luminaries he mentions in the introduction to guide us around planet Simpson (à la the foreword by Douglas Coupland), but no such luck. Well-intentioned though it may be, Turner’s droning is enough to make you swear off TV books, if not television.