The article in the subtitle of this book is telling. The eminent film writer offers not a definitive or comprehensive history of TV but a personal celebration of his particular fascinations and a provocative consideration of the ways in which the very mechanics of the medium affect the audience, both as individuals and as a mass culture.
In chapters often focusing on slightly left-field topics, including the problem of “role models” and the psychological effects of the commercial break, Thomson (How to Watch a Movie, 2015, etc.) organizes the book thematically rather than chronologically. This organization suits his allusive, digressive style, as he analyzes the ways in which TV’s unique qualities—endless variety, constant availability, and insidious tendency toward narcotized reassurance, to name a few—shape and contextualize viewers’ understanding of the world. By the author’s reckoning, the influence of TV on human experience is so profound that we perch on a precipice of complete unreality (or virtual reality), existing only in relation to the screen; in his formulation, the “elephant in the room” of TV’s primacy has “become the room.” Thomson’s insights are typically unsparing and acute, and while many of the implications of his argument are troubling, his love and admiration for the best of TV—Breaking Bad gets high marks, and no Thomson fan will be surprised to find multiple appreciations of Angie Dickinson—are palpable. When it suits his purpose, the author delves into more straightforward histories of institutions such as PBS and the BBC, and he provides memorable sketches of figures from Lucy Ricardo to Larry David (“David has as confused an attitude to the public as Charlie Chaplin had. But like Charlie he has found release and self-love in performing. He is maybe the most fascinating awful person on television”), but this is not merely a reference book. It’s a love letter and a warning, beautifully written and deeply disquieting.
A bracing, essential engagement with the ramifications of our lives before the small screen.