Cantor (English/Univ. of Virginia) turns a semi-serious series of lectures on contemporary television into a more comprehensive volume.
By his own account, Cantor’s descent into the deconstruction of popular TV shows was accidental. Playful applications of a literary critic’s tools to shows like The Simpsons and The X-Files drew interested responses and soon found a niche, then the present volume, in which Cantor contrasts The Simpsons and The X-Files with Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek by arguing that the latter two reflect a more insular America. Rather than embrace their surroundings by “going native,” Gilligan and friends do their best to recreate American society on their island, and all their encounters with foreigners affirm American values and superiority. Gilligan stands as the bumbling but affable democratic everyman. In the same way, the crew of the Enterprise, led by the more virile Captain Kirk, spreads Americanism beyond the Pacific into outer space. Despite a “prime directive” not to disturb native life, time and again the Star Trek crew interferes in favor of democracy and freedom. In both The Simpsons and The X-Files, by contrast, America, far from spreading outward, is bombarded by aliens of all types. Cantor suggests that the Simpsons, rather than being concerned with national affairs as their family sitcom predecessors might have been, have little use for the nation-state. Government is uniformly derided; emphasis is either local or global. Nor can the government be trusted in The X-Files. Indeed, America is under siege by creatures difficult to assimilate into contemporary culture. Cantor’s arguments—that art imitates life and that America has changed—evokes little more than a nod of assent. More fun is his analysis of specific episodes—Gilligan is compared to Robert Musil’s “man with no qualities” and Tocqueville is cited on Bart Simpson—but it’s all rendered with too finicky a precision and too little humor.