Review: How to Watch Television

How to Watch Television edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell


While I tell people that I didn’t start watching television “properly” until I was fifteen, it’s a bit of shorthand. It’s not that we didn’t watch television in my house growing up. My mother, a committed Anglophile of a Frenchwoman, watched (and continues to watch) Masterpiece Theater on a regular basis, and I, obviously, had both the time and access to watch I Love the 80s and imprint upon eighties pop culture like a duckling. Otherwise, my parents just didn’t watch primetime television shows, which meant that I was simply never exposed to even the concept. By the time Heroes rolled around and my pop culture junkie destiny was realized, all of my critical background, both taught and absorbed, was in literature. Since then, I’ve been working to expand my critical eye into other mediums. I’ve been paying specific attention to film (hello, Story of Film!) and comics (hello, Understanding Comics!), but seeing How to Watch Television on NetGalley reminded me that it was high time to officially tackle television.

Especially with the five shows I’ll be juggling this season.

In their introduction, Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell frame How to Watch Television as an owner’s guide to critically negotiating the text of television. “This book collects a variety of essays and presents them as different ways of watching, methods for looking at or making sense of television… This is what good criticism does—it applies a model of thinking to a text in order to expand our understanding and experience of it,” they say, while also emphasizing that criticism is not about deeming a show “good” or “bad” (xi). Given my own issues with how criticism is simplified by mainstream culture, I leapt on the bandwagon before the introduction was even over.

With forty essays collected here, How to Watch Television covers a lot of ground. Critical darlings like Mad Men and The Sopranos are examined, but so are programs like Giada De Laurentiis’ cooking show Everyday Italian and Jersey Shore. These programs might seem disparate, but the bounty of ideas on display here knit them together. The essays on House MD and Phineas and Ferb look at how television shows can turn formula—and the occasional violation of formula—into a narrative strength, the essays on LIfe on Mars and The Prisoner examine the art of adapting television shows into other television shows, and the essays on 24 and The Cosby Show examine the media’s contribution to the illusion of post-racial America. (Cue dreamy sighing.)

Ultimately, it’s a very rich collection. Anthologies are inherently uneven, but even the thinner pieces collected here offer a new way to look at television. Honestly, they’re all quite worth the time, with all the thoughts they open up. An essay on popular music in Nip/Tuck touches on how texts gather meaning throughout their lives when discussing the choice of “Stuck in the Middle With You” for a surgery—another on Parks & Recreation offhandedly proposes that diverse ensemble casts are a way of attracting viewers in an increasingly “narrowcast” world. You’re left with a sense of the great potential of television as a medium, particularly when it comes to bringing people together. Even as we wring our hands over the fragmentation of audiences, television viewers still remain united through certain programs. After all, Saturday Night Live was able to open with a joke about avoiding Breaking Bad spoilers this past weekend. It’s not a rosy picture—these authors are just as sharp towards the commercial and commodification side of television—but it is a powerful one.

Naturally, though, I responded the best to an essay on fandom. Suzanne Scott’s “Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content” gives some vocabulary and shape to a lot of thoughts I’ve been having recently about fandom, creators, and the blank spaces in which fandom thrives. (So, Pottermore, basically.) Scott identifies two kinds of fandoms—transformative and affirmational: “Unlike transformative fandom, which values “appropriation over documentation, and multiple interpretations over hierarchical authority,” affirmational fandom is characterized by a deep investment in both authorial intent and the “rules” that govern a fiction universe, along with a desire to comprehensively understand that universe” (311). She’s quick to point out that neither model should be privileged over the other and that this binary model doesn’t capture everything about fandom. But it does provide important vocabulary.

More importantly, Scott examines the possible use of ancillary content (extra content such as commentaries, webisodes, and podcasts) to reinforce a “correct” reading of a text. If the content is flying thick and fast, Scott argues, then the transformative fan has no room to engage with the text, either temporally (you can only write fic so fast) or in the story (when all the backstory is given, where do you explore?). And the text then has no room for the transformative fan. To quote Scott, “Ancillary content … scribbles in the margins that used to belong to fans” (316). All of the essays in How to Watch Television will help me as a viewer, but I’ll be returning to Scott’s essay time and time again.

Bottom line: A rich collection that will broaden your critical faculties and your mind. Well worth a read, especially if you love television.

I read this book on NetGalley.

10 thoughts on “Review: How to Watch Television

  1. Pingback: September Reading Wrap-Up and a Look to October

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