From Uncle Miltie to the moon launches to Wheel of Fortune, a briskly intelligent decade-by-decade analysis of the TV programs that have indelibly shaped American culture. Now that cable television is in a majority of American homes and 500 channels are in the offing, the once unassailable cultural hegemony of the three networks is rapidly disappearing. Will 7 out of 10 TV sets, for example, ever again be tuned to the same miniseries, as happened with Roots? As Stark, a writing instructor at Harvard Law School and pop-culture commentator for NPR and CNN, makes clear, television has played an enormous but subtle role in molding our perceptions and attitudes, often in unexpected ways: ``Television's ubiquity makes it a pop-culture version of the air we breathe.'' Comedies have been particularly influential. Making up more than a third of his list, they have dealt with everything from women's entry into the workforce (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to prejudice (All In the Family) to multiculturalism (The Cosby Show). As Stark notes, ``By packaging troubling cultural shifts in the guise of comic fantasy, these shows made it easier for Americans to come to grips with rapid social change.'' While one could quibble with a few of his omissions (Soap, The Simpsons, Cops, any of Aaron Spelling's oeuvre), Stark has done a remarkable job of compilation, sifting the millions of hours of fluff and dreck to find what really mattered. This is also some of the best and most informed writing on television around. Stark is always looking for explanations beyond the usual explanations. For example, TV is frequently criticized for its violence, yet Stark believes that shows like Dragnet helped shape overly positive and uncritical attitudes about the legal system. A vital and engaging analysis of the television ``canon.''
Read full book review >