Who talks about the art of movies anymore? Television has vaulted past its big-screen predecessor to dominate pop culture conversation. And no wonder. In the past year, we’ve come to see it’s the age of “peak TV” — a term FX chief John Landgraf coined after counting 2015’s nearly 400 scripted series. While he’s talking numbers, other experts are dropping similar superlatives about program quality.
“The Platinum Age of Television” (Doubleday, 576 pp., $32.50) wears its estimation in its title, as David Bianculli explores “the evolutionary pattern” by which TV has come to deliver the depth, breadth and delight of everything from “The Simpsons” to “The Sopranos,” from “Downton Abbey” to “The Daily Show,” with “The Good Wife,” “Breaking Bad” and “Louie.”
Bianculli, now heard on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and read at his own TV Worth Watching site (to which I have contributed), spent decades at New York daily newspapers, watching everything and interviewing everybody. That shows in this wide-ranging personal tour of TV, genre by genre — drama, sitcoms, “splitcoms” (dramedy) and a dozen more (sci-fi, crime, sketch). It’s an anecdotal road trip with refueling stops to flesh out 90 key programs, from “I Love Lucy” to “Empire,” so deftly summarized that it feels you’ve just watched them again (or now want to).
Interspersed are interviews with 25 creators (from 90-something Carl Reiner to 30-something Amy Schumer) whose enthusiasm matches the author’s. Along the way, we’re subtly delivered details of off-screen evolutions — technology, sponsorship, ratings, transmission systems — that influenced what we see. Bianculli wants “to spark the conversation” about TV’s cultural currency.
Speaking of chat-starters, “TV (The Book)” (Grand Central, 410 pp., $20) numerically ranks America’s 100 greatest scripted series ever. So let the debate begin. Onetime Star Ledger critic colleagues Alan Sepinwall (now online at Hitfix) and Matt Zoller Seitz (New York magazine’s Vulture) enjoyably introduce this personal Pantheon with their witty Great Debate, some 18 pages of webchat settling their five-way tie for greatest show ever. (What, you think I’m telling?)
They justify their picks with sharp show-by-show essays, including a few tandem takes (“Friends” with “The Golden Girls”). Concluding chapters widen out to weigh current Works in Progress, as well as personal fascinations from “Gilligan’s Island” to “The Knick.” It’s no insult to call this a fine bathroom book, easily readable in pieces.
“Television: A Biography” (Thames & Hudson, 416 pp., $35) requires more intense attention. The premise of author/provocateur David Thomson is that TV itself demands so little of our attention, while sucking all the air out of our lives. He sees the ubiquitous screen — including the successors upon which TV has trained us to gaze (computers, smartphones) — as a “complacent habit” that fosters “passive acquiescence.” The programs acclaimed by the two books above merely serve, says Thomson, to normalize our tube-glued numbness: “The oasis can be appealing as a getaway resort. . . . This is so like Las Vegas it can be worrying.”
This jauntily opinionated “biography” delivers less chronology than casemaking from its prolific British-born author (“A Biographical Dictionary of Film”). But Thomson’s examination of the medium and its messages will drop decades of names/titles through its many chapters on enduring genres and changing tropes (commercials, women’s roles; also role models, with Bill Cosby proving that “the obverse of thoughtless trust is vengeful shaming”). He doesn’t overlook “the ordinary, casual pleasure” of watching TV (Thomson loves the openly dopey “Gong Show”), but fears its accrued impact. His arguments vividly deconstruct specific moments, from “M*A*S*H” to Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes to — wait for it — Donald Trump.
With a publication date of Oct. 25, the book pointedly considers the reality TV star and underrated presidential candidate before his stunning victory. Thomson avers that it was always beside the point to describe Trump as reckless or mean: “Those verdicts are accurate enough, but they are so incidental to the context of what he has absorbed from television about talking to us.” Indeed, Trump led “a presidential campaign that grew out of television itself,” as Thomson posits in his fascinating study of “the cultural atmosphere our several small screens have made, and how we have little power over their momentum.”
Let there be a next edition for Thomson to flesh out his take on Trump’s galvanic disruption. He seems to hint that it culminates the personal screen’s progression from “sacred fixed altar” of home entertainment to ubiquitous, overarching presence that subconsciously alters the way we address the world. Do we gain TV’s platinum age at the cost of our own souls?