May 13, 2014

How we became who we are

Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, by Steven A. Stark, Free Press, 352 pages, available through second-hand bookshops and online

I've referenced Steven Stark’s book many times in the last couple of years, so to add too many more words would be superfluous.   Nonetheless, there are, I think, a few more things than can be added when writing about this terrific book, and why anyone interested in classic television and American culture should read it.

Rather than writing a conventional history of television and its cultural influence, Stark has chosen to view that relationship by looking at 60 television shows and/or events that reflect particularly significant points regarding the influence TV has had on us.  These range all the way from the pioneers of television (The Milton Berle Show, Howdy Doody) to moments frozen in time (the JFK assassination, the moon landing, Watergate) to shows of the more recent past (Saturday Night Live, ER, Oprah).

Many of Stark’s insights might seem surprising at first; few people might invest Howdy Doody with Stark’s gravitas, but as Stark relates how Doody was actually little more than Berle for kids, and signified what became a major debate regarding children’s programming, and in fact how we view children in this society, “whether adults would permit their children to see pretty much the same type of programming that they did, since – given the choice between something educational and something entertaining – it was obvious which one kids would pick.”  As Stark points out, programming – whether for adults or children – has always been “designed to reach the broadest audience possible.”

In a chapter on “Masterpiece Theatre and the Failure of PBS,” Stark again makes the reader think counter-intuitively; the massive success of Masterpiece, arguably PBS’ signature program (along with Sesame Street) is actually an indicator of the network’s failure to develop original programming, and indeed a reflection of the deep confusion surround what public broadcasting’s mission is supposed to be.

Looking at the westerns and police shows that were so popular in the 50s and 60s, Stark finds much of interest in what this tells us about society at the time: “Until the advent of television, however, popular culture had traditionally romanticized crime, with the police (or their equivalents) often treated as villains not heroes. A strong antiestablishment distrust of formal legal authority used to run through our popular culture.”  The heroes of the time are the private detective and the cowboy – “highly individualistic” individuals “who distained the traditional mechanisms of the law.”

This all changes with the premiere of Dragnet in 1952, as the police detective – often portrayed as world-weary, underpaid and overworked, and often stymied by the bureaucracy in his attempts to enforce the law – becomes television’s new protagonist, a status that with few exceptions remains to this day.  Consequently, in an age that doesn’t seem to particularly value the rugged individualism of the frontier cowboy, law-and-order reigns supreme.

Stark can be particularly savage in looking at news programming; looking at the rise of tabloid shows such as ET, Hard Copy and Inside Edition, he notes that their success led network news shows to “ape” their style, to the extent that by 1993, “for the first time, news about the entertainment industry and its stars became among the Top Ten most heavily reported subjects on the evening newscasts.”  Quoting media critic Neil Postman, Stark concludes that “both the form and content of news becomes entertainment.”

Stark also makes a subtle point about the trustworthiness of television news which I think bears mention; as he praises Walter Cronkite’s career, he parenthetically notes that Cronkite’s success in casting a light on the dark shadows of the government’s often nefarious activities (for which he became known as “America’s most trusted man”) caused the public to become more cynical about institutions in general –including, eventually, television news.  In the same way that society has drifted away from valuing individualism and independence, those who set themselves up as gatekeepers of the establishment are often looked upon with as much suspicion as those whom they investigate.  Hoisted on their own petards, so to speak.

I hope I’ve not made this sound too academic, because it isn’t.  Stark writes with a clear, entertaining prose, often making his points as if he were sitting with you on the living room couch, watching the same programs.  His viewpoint is that of someone who watches and appreciates television, rather than that of an intellectual or professional critic.

I didn’t agree with all of Stark’s choices for the 60 most influential, and I’m not always on board with his interpretations, but I had great fun reading this book and pondering it afterwards.  I’ve referred to it often on the blog, and suspect I’ll continue to do so.  And if I’ve encouraged you to check it out, then I’ve done my job.

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