James McNamara reviews 'Television: A Biography' by David Thomson

Great books have been written on television. David Thomson’s Television: A biography is not among them. This surprises me, because Thomson is one of America’s most lauded film critics. To have his thoughts on television over the sweep of its history, viewed through his decades of experience, seemed a boon to me – a critic born in 1982. But Television judges its subject too harshly in a study that often feels painfully dated.

Taking on television as a whole is an admirably vast job. The term ‘television’ alone encompasses an array of meaning, technologies, and history: the broadcast of a coronation, 1960s ads, game shows, tonight’s Netflix comedy. The term’s meaning has evolved, as economic and technological change shift its methods of consumption, artistic quality, and cultural significance. Tackling ‘television’, then, requires structural and critical rigour.

Thomson abdicates from this in the introduction: ‘how does one tell “the story” of the television era? ... [T]he more I thought about that (and tried to find a structure), the more I felt confounded.’ It shows. Arguing (speciously) that he would have to cover everything ever made to do it properly, Thomson declines a linear history and instead divides the book into the ‘Medium’ and its ‘Messages’.

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Published in March 2017, no. 389

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