Here are two very different books about television. One is a great slab of a thing that calls itself a ‘biography’ of the medium, the other is a slim volume that claims to be merely a ‘bingewatcher’s notebook’, though as that binge watcher is Clive James, we can be sure it will be rather special.
First, to the slab. David Thomson’s book is hardly a biography of television, or even a history, but rather a collection of long, loosely thematic essays about various aspects of the medium. These discursive essays mingle production credits, potted biographies and thumbnail sketches with general observations that are sometimes insightful but are often less clever than they sound. ‘Jokes are like sex or sneezing: you have to be there’ (hmm). The cast of Friends ‘were more lifelike than the figures on The Muppets or The Simpsons’ (well, they would be). ‘Presidents are still capable of doing BIG things – like Abu Ghraib, Health Care, and Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps they are just big, or big…’ (what does this even mean?).
Thomson is best known as a writer about cinema: his Biographical Dictionary of Film is an indispensable reference work. He is also, though British by birth, a longtime resident of the USA, and Television: A Biography is aimed squarely at the American market. It takes Thomson nearly a